Second Sunday in Lent

Pastor Eric Deibler

  • Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
  • Psalm 22:23-31
  • Romans 4:13-25
  • Mark 8:31-38

Yogi Berra once famously said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” The disciples find themselves at a fork in the road in today’s gospel lesson. What kind of messiah are they looking for? What kind of disciple are they going to be?

There are two possibilities before them. Immediately preceding today’s reading, Peter confesses his faith in Jesus as the messiah, the Son of God. And Jesus affirms this confession. It’s kind of interesting, because Mark never has Jesus outright confirm Peter’s confession. Instead that little scene ends with the phrase, “And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”

The label “Messiah” immediately brought it all kinds of implied meanings. The Jews of the time had a pretty firm idea as to what a messiah would be like and what a Messiah would do. The Messiah would be strong and powerful: a warrior. The Messiah would attract the masses and then organize the masses into a rebellion against the Roman occupation. The Messiah would free Israel and the surrounding countries from occupation and unite God’s faithful people in one glorious state. The Messiah would recreate the glory the nation had under King David.

Those were the expectations which many shared, including the disciples, as to what the messiah would do. As the closest associates of the messiah, the disciples could count on sharing in his power and glory. They were getting in on the ground floor! This was going to be an amazing turn of events for Israel and, for the disciples personally, things would be none too shabby for them, as well.

This image of the Messiah, the conquering warrior king, was one branch of the fork in the road faced by the disciples.

The other one is introduced by Jesus in today’s gospel: The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. This is a very different kind of messiah. This messiah is like the suffering servant about whom Isaiah writes. It’s a type of Messiah that is certainly not unknown in the Hebrew Scriptures. But it’s a type of Messiah that was totally neglected and overlooked among Jesus’ contemporaries. When the going got tough and the people were suffering, they didn’t want a suffering Messiah. They wanted the super-buff guy, who was a military genius, who would daringly run into battle with a double-edged sword in both hands.

A fork in the road. Two very different visions of the Messiah are presented to the disciples. They must choose. Will they wait for the political and military leader and liberator, or will they believe in the suffering son of Man who will die and rise again?

This is a critical decision because it’s implications are quite weighty. These two different kinds of messiah’s will require two different kinds of discipleship. The strong leader of the nation will need obedient soldiers who, after victory, will be rewarded in worldly terms, maybe a cushy government position? The suffering servant calls his disciples to pick up their cross and follow him, to be willing to die for the gospel, to be servants all their lives long with no eye on earthly rewards. What Jesus promises instead is their soul and life everlasting. Which is it gonna be?

Abraham and Sarah face a similar fork in the road. God is offering them a covenant. God will be their God and they will be God’s people. They will be a blessing to the nations. They will have land and be the ancestors of a holy nation. This is a pretty amazing offer. Which is it gonna be?

They could choose to stick with what’s familiar. They could say, “Eh, you know what, God, we’re good. We kinda like it here, and we’re getting old. We don’t really want to travel any more. Thanks, but no thanks”. Or, they could trust God’s covenant and the promises God makes to them and, based on these promises, venture into an unknown future.

They’re not dumb. They know it’s going to be tough. Desert travel is hard and uncertain and fraught with danger. They know that. They also know that the likelihood of having children after all those years and in their advanced age is close to nil. But they go. They believe, and they trust, and they go. Upheld by the promises of God, they embark upon a future with God. They don’t know what the journey will be like, but they trust that there will be blessings along the way. They trust that the end will be glorious according to God’s word. They trust that throughout the journey God will be with them. And so, upheld by nothing but God’s promises, they go.

It is that faith in God’s promises that Paul picks up on in our second lesson. He contrasts this kind of faith relationship with God with the kind of relationship fostered by the law. When you engage in a law-based relationship, Paul argues, all you get in the end is wrath, because law leads to a quid pro quo attitude: If I do this for God, then I can expect him to do that for me. There is no love in this; it is just a bargain, a business deal. And if then something happens that doesn’t fit the deal, say you offer all the prescribed sacrifices and keep a kosher kitchen and then your child gets sick and dies, where does that lead? It leads to anger and despair and a crisis of faith. It leads, as Paul puts it, to wrath.

Abraham and Sarah had a different relationship with God. It wasn’t based on laws, but rather on love and faith and promises. God promised to bless Abraham and Sarah. They didn’t have to do anything but accept the offer. Like a thirsty person is offered a free cup of water, but still has to accept it and drink it in order to get the benefit, so Abraham and Sarah accept the offer and drink in the promise and set out on the journey of faith. There are no guarantees here. There are no laws and legal clauses to back them up. All that upholds them and guides them and strengthens them is their faith in the promise.

Eventually, the disciples develop that kind of faith. For now, facing the fork in the road, they’re confused and timid. But after Easter, they know exactly what kind of messiah to follow and what kind of discipleship to live. They have seen Jesus’ promise fulfilled: The son of Man shall suffer and die and after three days rise again. They have seen the risen Son of Man. And from that experience they receive the faith to pick up their cross and deny themselves and follow Jesus. They enter the road of discipleship based on the promise alone. The promise that Jesus is the way to Father, and that life everlasting is waiting for the faithful, and that Jesus will be with them until the end of the earth. The promise is that by carrying their crosses, they will find life that really is life. They will find their souls.

Lent places us before a fork in the road. What do we believe? What does Jesus call us to do? What must our discipleship be like? What must we deny and let die in our lives, so we can carry our cross faithfully and gain our souls? And underneath all of these questions is the basic one: Do we trust the promise? Do we dare set out on the journey of discipleship, the journey of life, upheld by nothing by the promises of our savior?

It’s hard to trust like that. We’ve gotten suspicious and cynical. We want a back-up. We want binding contracts and legal language, so that if something goes wrong, we have a recourse. Living on promises alone is hard.

The LEAD process has brought into sharper relief for me this choice to trust in God’s promise, or not. I mean, things are going well for us. Calvary is in, what for many churches, is an enviable position. We ended this past year with a significant budget surplus. Whereas other congregations have, at the very least, stayed flat and most have declined, Calvary has managed to grow by 13% over the past six years.

The part of me that wants to play it safe says, “Why mess with a good thing? Things are going well. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! The budget surplus, a growth in membership and worship: they’re a cushion, an insurance policy against the unknown future.”

But as I’ve delved deeper into my faith, along with the rest of the LEAD team, I think I speak for all of us when I say that I’ve come to realize that this is the voice, not of reason, but of fear. And I’m tired of living out of fear. God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear. God gives us a spirit of boldness. And we are called to a faith that is likewise bold and consequential. The voice of bold, consequential, promise-believing faith is the one that says, “Why mess with a good thing? Things are going well. And it’s all prelude to the greater things that are to come, to make this place a bold and consequential force in our community.”

When we’re baptized, God comes to us in exactly the same way that he came to Abraham and Sarah: Out of the blue, without us doing anything to deserve it or even ask for it. God comes to us and promises to be our God forever. God invites us on a covenant journey, promising us blessings along the way and a glorious homeland at the end and his presence with us until the day we get there. Based on that promise, we live.

And really, what else is there to hold us up but the promise of a faithful God who will be with us until the end. When we get sick and suffer in body and soul, it’s God’s promise of ultimate healing that carries us through. When someone we love dies, what gives us comfort is the promise that our loved ones have arrived at the heavenly home promise by God? When the economy goes down and we lose so much we worked for and we worry about the future, what else is there but the promise of God to go with us through the dark valley? When people we trusted break their promises, what else can we grasp for strength but the promise that God will be with us until the end of the earth? And in the end, when we face death, when we are about to enter the part of the journey about which we know nothing, the only thing that calms our fears and gives us peace is the promise that Jesus will be there for us.

Promises. Our whole life’s journey is based on promises. The story of Abraham and Sarah is a story of promises made and promises kept. As you keep reading through our book of faith, you’ll read more and more promises. God loves us and promises us wonderful things. And those promises are the foundation upon which we stand.

Lent asks us to consider anew these promises. Lent asks us to stand at the fork in the road and decide what kind of a messiah we want to follow. Do we want the powerful, glorious leader who will fight our wars and create a new society of winners and losers? Or do we want the servant of all who loves and heals and saves all people? Do we want the political hero who will do his thing until he dies? Or do we want the Lord of peace who will be with us forever, until the end of the earth? Do we live for short-term rewards? Or do we live towards the blessings promised us with no time-line offered? Do we want to gain the world and forfeit our soul? Or do we want to pick up our cross and deny ourselves and gain our soul? Amen.

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