Sermon - 25 February 2018
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Mark 8:31-38
‘Jesus never promised us a rose garden’
Don’t you just love the story of Abraham and Sarah – he’s 100 and she’s 90 and they have just heard the news that they are going to become parents! Can you imagine them, probably bent over with arthritis, hard of seeing and hearing, his hair already thinning if not gone altogether? No wonder they laughed. We might even imagine them holding each other up as they lean on their walking sticks and laugh until the tears roll down their wrinkled faces.
The passage we heard from the book of Genesis is primarily about two things: hope and the belief that God can take the most barren and apparently lifeless, even desperate situation and transform it into new life. It is the first instalment of a continuing, enthralling story about God breaking into the desert places of life with the promise of a kingdom flowing with milk and honey, of abundance and prosperity. The story of Abraham and Sarah was imprinted on the Jewish people’s memory as an example of God’s gracious actions towards them, which reminds them and us of God’s ability to honour our covenantal relationship.
Abraham and Sarah’s story is one of faith, and the ability to believe in the impossible becoming possible, that is, to dream the impossible dream. They believed that by the grace and power of God, this dream would become a reality. There is something here in this story which challenges and uplifts us all. So many magnificent dreams and visions and plans are often knocked on the head, without them even getting off the ground by a decision that declares ‘it can’t be done!’ We seem to spend a lot of time and energy putting limitations on the power of God. Faith therefore is the ability to lay hold of the strength which is made perfect in our weakness. When we believe that grace – God’s power and love – is sufficient for all things in such a way, then, the humanly impossible becomes divinely possible. Things we thought would never happen, with God’s intervention, seem to start happening, when we put our faith in God. We might even see changes in our parishes and in community.
In the reading from the gospel according to Mark on suffering and discipleship, many challenges are raised for those who profess to follow Christ? Mark’s message is simply put, by saying that disciples, including us, must be at God’s disposal in the same way as Jesus was. We might then consider Peter’s reaction in today’s gospel story. At first, his boldness is shocking – we might wonder how he had the audacity to take Jesus aside and argue the point with him? Then when we think about ourselves, we might realise that sometimes we have also wanted to take Jesus aside and debate with him too.
Peter acts this way because he doesn’t like what Jesus is saying. How often have we felt that way? How often have we wanted to explain the realities of a harsh world to a Jesus who seems naïve and unrealistic in what he expects of us? Especially, when we might wonder what he means by telling us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor, in order to follow him? How can Jesus expect us to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”? It’s certainly is not realistic to “give to everyone who asks for a handout from you.”
One of the most difficult aspects of Jesus words is the challenge to change the pattern of thinking we usually have and the ways that we do things, that we may have established on the basis of other values. We all have ways in which we protect ourselves. They may involve some attachment to material possessions or to our relationships with other people. In other words, a person who desires above all to keep everything under his or her control, who seeks to dominate every situation, is protecting a self that will ultimately be lost. Jesus is inviting us to share in a covenant of life with him – but it is by following a very different path than we would expect. Jesus promises us life if we have the courage to face death. Jesus promises that if we give our lives wholeheartedly to him by serving our neighbours, we will have rich and abundant life flowing through us, building us up in preparation of an eternal life.
It is an enticing invitation – but a scary one. To know that Jesus is entering death willingly and expects us to do the same, would usually cause anyone pause and think twice. While we know that one day we will all confront literal, physical death, there are many other deaths awaiting us. We will face the death of our pride, the death of our comfortable ideas about what God is calling us to do and be, perhaps even the death of our financial security and the death of our ambition and our striving for success. The covenant to which we are invited has very high stakes, and the urge to take Jesus aside and question him as Peter did starts to make more and more sense.
It does seems impossible though, doesn’t it? It seems as far-fetched to imagine ourselves brave enough to follow Jesus into death, to lose our lives to save them, as he says, as much as it did for Abraham and Sarah to have children in their old age. This covenantal relationship to which we are invited, to take this strange and frightening path of cross-carrying and death, is only possible under one condition. We cannot make it by relying on hard work or determination or power or strength. Some of us, including many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, may pay that cost of discipleship with their literal, physical lives. But most of us will not go out in a blaze of martyred glory. Most of us will carry the cross one small step at a time, one spiritual discipline or devoted service at a time, or one act of generosity or sacrifice or love at a time.
However we carry the cross, the giving of our lives willingly to follow Jesus will be manifested in one perhaps unexpected cost: the risk of being changed. When Abram and Sarai committed to God’s covenant with them, they were changed at such a fundamental level that they could no longer be known by their former names. The man and woman who were God’s covenant partners had to be known as Abraham and Sarah, names that echoed their former selves but were profoundly transformed, just like their lives and their souls.
This is the risk we take when we sign on to Jesus’ covenant of life, the journey with and through the cross and its transforming power, the road through death to resurrection.
We will emerge on the other side with the building blocks of our souls familiar to us, but the place of grace into which they have been built will be strange, new and glorious. We can finally let go of our urge to challenge Jesus, to remake him to be like we think he should be, like ourselves, because we know through faith that he will remake us to be like him. That’s a covenantal promise worthy of our very lives.
Jesus never promised us a rose garden, he never promised us that faithfulness and success go together. Jesus promises us that in our frantic desire to save our lives, we will lose them. He promises that, if we will dare to throw away our lives with him, we shall find the true source of our life. When we do that, who can then say that the impossible cannot become possible? Put your faith in God and allow God to bring about unimagined changes through Jesus Christ. Amen.