2nd Sunday in Lent
February 25 2018
Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22.23-31; Romans 4.13-25; Mark 8.31-38
Rev Angleena Keizer, Methodist Church of Great Britain
Today is the second Sunday of Lent, a season where followers of Christ reflect on his suffering, as he was led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit and tempted by the devil for forty days and forty nights. It is a time for reflection on our commitment to Christ as we journey towards Good Friday. It’s a time when some fast or give up something, like chocolate. For some of us, it may be a time to reflect and respond to the testing and struggles we have experienced on our journey; for some we may have regrets.
Over the years I have enjoyed reading people’s stories and encounters with God. I used to have a book entitled God’s Generals, which the author writes of the lives of both men and women of faith from past generations, who heard the call to follow Jesus and their experiences. The author considered them to be giants in the faith but is very honest in recording their struggles, accomplishments and seeming failures. The book both inspired and strengthened me on my faith journey. These were people I had never met; however, some of their stories resonated with me. There are also those known to me, whose names would never appear in a book, and whose lives of faith have had a profound effect on me. Perhaps you too have had individuals who have inspired and encouraged you, known or unknown to you, who you may consider to be giants in the faith.
Chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews is often known as the wall of faith. Abraham is one of the characters whose name is recorded there. There are a number of things credited to Abraham, one of which is the account read to us today in Genesis chapter 17. The letter to the Hebrews says that by faith Abraham, even though he was past age and Sarah was barren, was enabled to become a father, because he considered him faithful who made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. Faith is described in verse 1 as being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Abraham believed the covenant God initiated and upheld.
Paul writes in the letter to the Romans: Against all hope Abraham in hope believed, and so became the father of many. God, described in the Genesis reading as Almighty God, El Shaddai, changed Abram’s name, which means exalted father, to Abraham, meaning the father of many. He changed Sarai’s name, which means ‘my princess’, to ‘princess’, calling her the Mother of Nations, and saying that kings of people will come from her.
Paul shares with his readers that Abraham was their forefather, who was justified by faith and not by works. He believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. Paul argues that the covenant of circumcision between God and Abraham and every male came as a sign after Abraham believed, and was a sign and seal of righteousness. Abraham, Paul states, is the father and heir of the world for all those who believe and walk in the footsteps of faith, whether circumcised or not. The promise of a covenant-making God comes by faith, by his grace, and is guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring. The themes in the book of Romans that Paul addresses are sin, righteousness, the gift of grace, salvation for Jew and gentile alike, worldwide mission and Christian living. Abraham was and is the father of all those who believe, and all who believe by the grace of God are justified by faith.
Genesis portrays an honest picture of Abraham and Sarah, their weaknesses, challenges and accomplishments. We read of their trust and commitment to God to walk in the footsteps of faith; and like so many, no doubt, they had their regrets. However they are described in the bible as those who were still living by faith when they died. Having lived as aliens and strangers on earth, they lived longing for a better country – a heavenly one.
The tomb of Abraham, Sarah and the Patriarchs is just down the road in Hebron. I was visiting there last weekend with a group from the UK. As we walked to visit the memorial tombs that are so significant and revered by Jew, Muslim and Christian alike, we witnessed division and segregation on the street. As we gazed on Abraham’s tomb, the giant of faith and the father of the nations, we saw that some did so through bulletproof windows. Another example of how the people of the land and different faiths view each other with suspicion and fear. I wonder what the man of faith would make of his offspring as they gather from different entrances to view his tomb!
Last Wednesday the man they called God’s ambassador, Billy Graham, died aged 99. He was the age Abraham was when God gave him the promise that he would become a father of many nations. Billy Graham preached to tens of millions during his crusades over the last 60 years. He not only talked the talk, he walked the walk. As a man, he knew his weaknesses and refused to meet or dine with any woman alone, other than his wife. He also regretted he had been involved in politics.
He picked up his cross when he refused to preach to segregated audiences in the US in the 1950s. At one event, he moved the rope dividing black and white and said, “Christianity is not a white man’s religion, and don’t let anyone tell you it’s black or white. Christ belongs to the people”. He reached out to strangers, rich and poor, black and white, pauper and royalty, people of power and the powerless, the abuser and the victim. He preached Christ crucified, risen and coming again in glory. He preached the message of God’s love, grace, salvation, and hope.
If you were ever at one of Billy Graham’s crusade, or watched recordings of them, you might be forgiven in thinking, alongside so many others, that nobody would respond to his simple messages. Yet they responded in their thousands to the gospel of Christ, putting their faith in the risen Lord.
Billy Graham, a man of faith also like those recorded in Hebrews, used to say “My home is in heaven, I’m just traveling through this world”. He looked forward to another country – a heavenly one. He was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.
In the Gospel today, Jesus prepared his disciples for what he must suffer. He taught that he would be rejected by those in powerful positions. He spoke plainly about his death and that he would rise again three days later. He informed the crowd and his disciples that if any would follow him, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. Anyone who wanted to save their life would lose it; whoever lost their lives for Christ and the gospel would save it. “What good is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul”? Jesus asked. He continued “if anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Fathers glory with the holy angels”.
May this Lent remind us of the love of God who has sustained and held us throughout. May it be a time where we respond to the Son of Man who walked with footsteps of faith to the cross, and remember, that by the grace of God we too are justified by faith just like the Patriarchs and like Billy Graham. May this be a time we commit ourselves to continue to be men and women who walk by faith, and not by sight, carrying our cross.
Let me conclude with a Lent reflection:
When we are tested and wrestle alone,
Famished for bread when the world offers stone,
Nourish us, God, by your word and your way,
Food that sustains us by night and by day.
When in the desert we cry for relief,
Pleading for paths marked by certain belief,
Lift us to love you beyond sign and test,
Trusting your presence, our only true rest.
When we are tempted to barter our souls,
Trading the truth for the power to control,
Teach us to worship and praise only you,
Seeking your will in the work that we do.
When we have struggled and searched through the night,
Sorting and sifting the wrong from the right,
Savior, surround us with circles of care,
Angels of healing, of hope, and of prayer.
Ruth C Duck (b.1947) 1996, Hope Publishing Company
 Roberts Liardon, God’s Generals: Why They Succeeded and Why Some Failed (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2012)