2nd Sunday in Lent

February 20, 2005
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Genesis 12:1-4a
Reading 2: 
Psalm 121
Reading 3: 
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Reading 4: 
John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9
By Rick Marshall

This gathering of texts is an embarrassment of riches, especially from the perspective of a process-relational theology. When I read them together, I feel like a child in a toy store going from one toy to the next, wanting to play with them all at the same time; I want to go in several directions at once. But that’s the suggestive power these texts hold. I will assume that the preacher is familiar with each of these famous texts.

The two texts this week that are closest in theme are from Genesis and Romans, both dealing with the Abraham story. We will look at these texts first.

Genesis 12:1-4 is the prototypical divine call at the beginning of the larger, more involved story of the faith of Abraham. But in these first verses we get the theme of the larger story; the concept of trust is primary. We know very little about Abram, as he is named early in the story. A genealogy links him to a history, but it’s a history that is largely unhelpful in the substance of the story that follows. For all practical purposes, there is nothing apparent about Abram that would deserve a Divine call. The Divine call comes at the beginning of the story, before we even meet Abram, which is significant, because it is then clear that the initiative comes from God, not because of some quality or virtue in Abram. Yet, later in the story, it is precisely Abraham’s quality of trust that becomes definitive for a life of faith.  

“Go from your home to the land that I will show you.” The Divine call goes on to involve a blessing which implies children, and children imply a future. Children are their way into the future, their hope of living beyond the death of their bodies, their expression of immortality. We soon find out that Abram is old, as well as is his wife, Sari. They have been unable to have children. They are an old couple without a future. We can easily imagine them retired and settled into the autumnal season of their lives, perhaps trying to content themselves with enjoying the quieter things in life, winding down their days. They have, long ago, reconciled themselves to having no children to leave their inheritance to, their name, their history, their memory. Their knees are aching from years of prayer. As we find out when the story unfolds, they have tried having children. Lord knows, they have tried. This old couple seems least likely to receive a Divine call to move. What do they have to gain?  What do they have to lose? Why should they be bothered now? Let them rest in peace.

But the old couple responds, without question, to the divine call and they pull up stakes and move. It’s a surprising decision. There is no destination given, except that God will show them when they get there, wherever “there” is. There are no maps available to begin this journey. The obvious question of how this move will lead to blessing, to children, to a future, is not even addressed. It is the barest of responses to the simplest of calls. God says go, and the old couple goes. Not that they later struggle with the tantalizing possibilities that taunt them as they watch their bodies grow even older, with no sign of the promised blessing in sight. There are times of despair, when desperate measure seem called for.

But they become the very image of entrusting their lives into the hands of the Divine without knowing beforehand what will happen to them. Theirs is the primal act of trust, the most basic of moves toward God.

Sari’s dead womb becomes the focus of the story. It has become a symbol of hopelessness to the couple. It’s easy to imagine that they have tried every possible method of conception available to them. They might even have spent a small fortune on this or that remedy, all to no avail. All the fretting over this womb, the most basic expression of human hope, and the closed horizon of despair its deadness is to them. It’s a sad image: two old people, holding hands, watching the sun set on any hope they might have had when they were younger. They are beyond consoling. There is nothing more they, or anyone, can do. They become the very embodiment of the tragic human condition. Staring into the blankness of a universe of “benign indifference.”

The parallels between them and us are striking, haunting.

Perhaps they of all people realize their future is out of their hands, and has been all along. There is nothing they can to to create their own future, to leverage themselves into life beyond death. Yet the promise of blessing! Yet the dead womb! What about the dead womb? What can be done?

It turns out that that is the very place where the Divine hand moves to create new life, as we find with the birth of Isaac, who is truly the child of promise. Beyond hope, beyond our ability to manage and create our own future, the divine hand creates something where there was nothing, bringing new life out of deadness.

Of course, later in the gospel stories, we find that wombs and tombs are very close symbols, both being places of hope and loss. Both places are popular with the Divine will to create something new. If new life can happen for this couple, it can happen for anyone, anywhere. Trust in the Divine power of creative transformation is the path to new life.

The Apostle Paul takes the Abraham story as a sign of the very heart of the gospel. It is simple trust in the Divine call, the Divine power to create a future that is beyond our hands and abilities. To the church at Rome, Paul pitches the old story once again. It’s a simple story about simple trust. Paul asks: what does the story say? “Abraham believed (or trusted) God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (4:3) His point is made against the effort of even the religious to leverage themselves, on their own terms, into a future that is fashioned by their own efforts, which misses the point to Abraham’s response of trust. Using even the Law to rig hope, to build a scaffolding into the future, is an act of self idolatry. The telling of Abraham comes after Paul’s devastating assessment of the human condition and how self idolatry is front and center the basic human problem. Trust in the Divine call is the answer to the problem of self idolatry.

The Gospel of John takes us back to the image of birthing to understand how the power of God works. There Jesus says “Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (3:3) And Nicodemus wants to literalize Jesus’ statement. But Jesus comes back with talk of the “wind blowing where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” This is not a biology problem.  Understanding egg and sperm and cell division does not explain how new life comes.

We get a foretaste of what God’s creating, transforming power does in life. It, well, it transforms. The Divine call then is to trust the creative, transforming power of God in our lives, the call that urges, entices us into an unknown future, a future that is filled with new possibilities.

Psalm 121 could be used as part of the liturgy in a service devoted to trusting the creative transforming power of God. It is a powerful, poetic expression of this trust in God. Where do we look for our hope? Our hope comes from the Creator. It’s a beautiful, magnificent poem.

From a process-relational theology, God’s call is seen as coming to us from moment to moment, offering possibilities to our becoming that will transform.

Preaching the text:
Please excuse the pun, but these texts are pregnant with possibilities. The strategy for preaching these texts is to stay out of their way enough to let them do their work. The Abraham story is so effective as a narrative that it can carry the whole sermon by simply telling the story, in the preacher’s own words, dwelling on the important aspects of the story. Here the preacher’s imagination is crucial; Walter Brueggemann calls it the Poetic Imagination. The Abraham story in particular is like a fine violin, though very old, when played with passion and finesse, expresses the human condition soulfully, poignantly. No matter how many times the fine violin is played, or the great story told, it is never tiring. At each hearing, new nuances can be found in the narrative, new relationships within the story discovered, new depths of human experience reflected. The narrative itself becomes a vehicle of transformation. The story itself becomes a Divine call in our lives. That’s where the power of the sermon lies.

Or, a sermon could focus on the Nicodemus story maybe in tandem with the Transfiguration story from Matthew. There the sermon could tease out the uncontrollable, unpredictable nature of the Divine power. It is like the wind. It is like fire. It has it’s own agenda and that agenda is to transform. Wherever there is death, the divine power works to transform death into new life. Wherever there is despair, the Divine power works to transform despair into hope. Wherever there is disease, the Divine power works to transform disease into well being.  Birth is one of the primary examples of the way the Divine power works. February 20 is my oldest daughter’s birthday and is therefore a very important birthing day to me. I would weave into the sermon my own experience of witnessing the common yet amazing birth of a child, my own child. Talk about an experience of the Divine!

Or, a sermon could focus only on the Transfiguration story, which could be tied into the Moses story from Exodus and how God called Moses to meet on the top of the mountain.

However I approach these texts, I would try to have fun with them in the shear joy of telling a great, beautifully told, story.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.