2nd Sunday in Lent

March 8, 2009
See Also: 

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

Reading 1: 
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Reading 2: 
Psalm 22:23-31
Reading 3: 
Romans 4:13-25
Reading 4: 
Mark 8:31-38
By Paul Nancarrow

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
The First Testament reading for this week continues the sequence begun last week, moving from the covenant with Noah to the covenant God makes with Abraham. God had first called Abram and Sarai to leave their home and kindred, promising to make of them a great nation and to bless them, so that through them all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3). The core of that promise is now, some twenty-four years later, when Abram is ninety-nine years old, formalized as a covenant, in which God commits to be in relationship with all the descendants of Abram and Sarai, “to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” As a sign of the covenant relationship, the name Abram (“Great Father”) is changed to Abraham (“Father of a multitude”), reflecting God’s covenant commitment to make Abraham the “ancestor of a multitude of nations.” The language used here in Chapter 17 does not echo directly the language of Chapter 12, that Abraham is to be a blessing “for all the families of the earth.” But the universality of the blessing is paralleled in this passage in the recurring theme that Abraham and Sarah are to be the parents of many nations—not one single chosen nation, but many nations—and that the covenant of divine relationship will extend to all the peoples that are to grow up from their offspring. We can see this as an extension of the new possibilities God actualized in responding to the righteousness of Noah: just as Noah became the channel through whom God could introduce into creation the possibility of working to heal sin from within as well as from without the created order, so Abraham is to be the channel through whom the blessing of committed divine relationship is to be extended to many peoples within the ways of the world. God’s long and patient relationship, first with Abram and Sarai, and then with Ishmael and Isaac and Rebekah, and then with Esau and Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah and their children—God’s long and patient relationships with the branches of Abraham and Sarah’s family is meant to form people who are able and willing to know God and to follow God and to be the instruments of God’s blessing. It is this blessing-through-the-peoples that is God’s way to deal with the violence and corruption of the world that is newer and more creative than the destructiveness of the Flood. The covenant with Abraham and Sarah thus builds on and extends the covenant with Noah.

Psalm 22:23-31
The promise of posterity given to Abraham and Sarah in their covenant with God is echoed in the psalm, especially in verse 27, foretelling “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” The notion of blessing—of an intimate and faithful relationship with God—beginning with Abraham and Sarah and growing to embrace all peoples is repeated in the universalism of this psalm passage. A more particular note is added with the reference to the “offspring of Jacob” and “offspring of Israel”—that is, the chosen people singled out for further covenantal relationship through Moses; we will consider that theme in more depth in next week’s readings. A yet more particular note is added with the appearance of a first-person-singular speaker, one from whom God did not hide God’s face, one whom God heard, one who praises God and will pay vows made to God. The rapid shifts in focus—from single speaker to Israelites to all nations to future generations and peoples yet unborn—can seem to defy logical analysis. Yet the intent of the poem is clear: that God is faithful to work within the ways of the world to heal affliction and transform enmity and create right relationships among people. This is a vision of the fruition of the covenant promise made to Abraham and Sarah.

Romans 4:13-25
Paul makes a bold interpretive move in his explanation of the progeny of Abraham, indicating that descent from Abraham is to be understood not as a matter of nationality or ethnicity, but as a matter of faith. Those who are heirs of God’s promise to Abraham, the “many nations” of which Abraham is the father, are not limited to certain biological lines of descent, but are to be found among “all of us,” among all humanity. For Paul, Abraham had as a defining characteristic in his life a quality of trust in God, trust that God would be able to bring about in Abraham the fulfillment of God’s promise, even though Abraham himself was manifestly unable to fulfill that promise under his own power: even though Abraham “was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old),” even though Sarah was barren, yet Abraham still trusted that God would bring to actuality in him the promise of numerous descendants and world-transforming blessing. That trust was a defining characteristic that so permeated Abraham’s actions that it counted as righteousness, it added up to right relationship with God. Therefore, Paul says, anyone who exemplifies in her or his life that same defining characteristic becomes an inheritor of Abraham. Those who make that defining characteristic of faith the basis for their own “hoping against hope” for creative transformation of self and world will likewise have it counted as righteousness, as that which puts them in right and just relationship with God. For Christians, this hope and trust in creative transformation is epitomized in Jesus, who was not only “as good as dead” but who died, “who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” Those who believe in the God who accomplished this in Jesus will, Paul asserts, experience the same transformation of destructive influence into creative possibilities in their lives. We often today speak of the three “Abrahamic faiths” of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But Paul hints broadly here that the heirs of Abraham range far wider than any particular religious formulation, but include anyone, anyone at all, who trusts in, and therefore acts out, the creating and transforming potency of the one who calls into existence the things that do not exist.
 
Mark 8:31-38
This Gospel passage is often captioned “The First Prediction of the Passion”; but it is worth noting that is the first prediction of the resurrection as well.  Just after Jesus asks the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter is the first among them to be able to say out loud “You are the Messiah,” Jesus reveals that his vocation is not to be the kind of warrior-king that occupied the messianic hopes of many Jews of the time. Instead, he has been anointed to confront the religious leadership, to bring them the message of repentance, metanoia, and renewal he proclaimed from the beginning of his ministry, as we saw in the Gospel for last week—and for that he is to suffer from them rejection, torture, and execution. But that will not be the last word, Jesus asserts: beyond that rejection, on the far side of that suffering, God will fulfill the promise of his anointing by raising him to new life on the third day. This is Jesus’ form of “hoping against hope,” like Abraham before him, “in the one who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist”—it is a defining characteristic of trust in God that pervades all his actions. And Jesus explicitly invites others to learn that defining characteristic from him and to exemplify it in their own lives: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Hoping against hope in the creatively transforming power of God requires commitment to divine relationship, which in turn entails a consistent intention to align one’s own aims with the wider aims of God, a letting-go of self-interest in favor of what Whitehead called “world-loyalty,” an interest in the richest possible experience for the widest possible community. This is a way of understanding Jesus’ paradox that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” The season of Lent is a time for the faithful to be particularly mindful of the self-transcending dimensions of discipleship, the practice of “self-denial” which is letting go of more immediate self-satisfactions for the sake of larger interests in God. The texts for today ask us how our own Lenten disciplines help us exemplify our inheritance of blessing in Abraham, and how we grow that blessing in sharing the paschal mystery of Christ.

Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.