Sermon text: Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16 and Mark 8: 31-38
There are many stressful events that we experience in life, but one of the absolute worst is moving. Sure, moving can be filled with promise and anticipation for what’s to come, but it is also filled with packing and schlepping boxes, changing over utilities and mailing addresses, leaving social networks and grocery store layouts you know by heart, and all the other projects that lurk in the shadow of a looming deadline.
In seminary I moved five times in four years, and I helped countless classmates move into and out of the seminary apartments, and that was enough…but at least each of these moves had a clear purpose. Each move had a clear destination for the packed U-Haul truck.
Imagine being Abram and Sarai. They’re in their rented moving truck, they have everything they could take with them, and they’re traveling south on the interstate but they do not know their destination. They’re following the GPS signal of God. There is no job to go to, no newly purchased house, no family greeting them with open arms. Nothing. Just a promise.
God said: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Those were the original words that God spoke to Abram when he was 75, the words that got him and Sarai packed and moving. Abram hears the promise, believes, and the U-Haul is cruising along.
However, that was in Chapter 12 of Genesis. Today we read from Chapter 17, and 24 years have passed in the story of Abram and Sarai. They are still childless. God’s promise is unfulfilled. Now, at the age of 99, Abram again hears God, who reaffirms the initial words of promise. This time a covenant is made, God renames the couple as Abraham and Sarah, and circumcision is given as a sign of the covenant.
It is at this point in the story that I take a second to pause and question. I wonder, what promise would I give everything up for? How long would I wait before I would give up hope in a promise? Could I wait 24 years for a promise to come true?
Consider who Abraham and Sarah are. Where they came from. How they got here, living as aliens in the land of Canaan, barren, and nearly a century old.
Abraham and Sarah are in this position because of faithfulness—because they are following God’s call. They show us what it means to live in light of a promise, to live in the hope of something yet to come.
Because here’s the thing: Abraham and Sarah aren’t just a pair of old fuddy duddies who follow an over-the-moon promise to achieve a good and fulfilled life. At home they were already in a position of power and they were set…and they walked away. Away from their family, clan, and planned future. I read once that Abraham was basically a regional war lord, so all sort of people would have been indebted to him, he had safety, security, wealth. He was set to inherit even more when his father died.
So when they pack up the truck and leave town for an unknown destination they aren’t just leaving family, or community, or a warm bed, or a safe house, or the convenience of knowing where everything is in the grocery store…no, they are leaving the certainty of a secure future. A prominent future.
Simply put, Abraham and Sarah become sojourners, and that a title nobody wants, especially in the ancient world. They leave land, family, and wealth to follow God’s call and for the possibility of a child of their own. They deny themselves. The deny family. They deny identity. And they do it all for this call and promise from God.
Abraham and Sarah model the behavior Jesus outlines. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
Can’t you just picture Abraham and Sarah leaving their family and security and walking towards the land of Canaan as Jesus speaks these words to his followers? It makes sense, doesn’t it, why this couple is exemplified for their faith. They are a model of what it means to live life abreast of the spoken yet unrealized promise of God.
After all, Abraham and Sarah will have a child together. Isaac will be born. But they don’t live to see the full span of God’s promise. They don’t see someone giving rise to nations and kings and peoples. They die, still awaiting the fulfillment of that promise. But that promise transformed their lives and made them in to different people.
And today we hear a similar invitation from Jesus, inviting us into a life of faith under the security of a new Godly promise, one that transforms us into a new way of life. But, it is costly. When Jesus spoke these words it meant giving up your identity. You may even have to give up family, or a social safety net, or safety. It involves the unspeakable, undignified scandal of the cross and the prospect of losing one’s life.
As I kept reading and pondering this story it became increasingly clear to me what it was chosen for a Sunday in this season of Lent—this season of baptismal preparation, study, and repentance. Just a week and a half ago, on Ash Wednesday, we reminded ourselves that we live our very mortal lives under in the hope of another covenant: our baptismal promises.
Like Abraham and Sarah, God has given us unmerited grace and blessings apart from our own actions. These are blessings we did not earn, grace that we did not deserve. And yet God has chosen us. God has made us worthy. God insists that we are inheritors of his promise. Our promises come in the form of water and word and in them we are invited to live into a new identity as the children of God.
And, just like Abraham and Sarah, we await to see the fulfillment of God’s promise. We are forced to reckon this in-between time of assurance and completion.
In response to this gift and promise our lives become one of service and cross bearing and denial. Our lives are saved when we lose them by proclaiming Christ and his gospel, and not our own agenda. Baptism calls us to a new way of being that goes against our common human tendencies. We are called to go against wealth and power and privilege.
If Abraham had desired those things then he would have never left his home. If Jesus had wanted those things then he would have agreed with Peter when Peter rebukes him for the very thought of dying on a cross. He could have become a worldly King of Kings.
The truth is we are called to lives of service and proclamation, lives that are far greater and far richer than what earthly wealth, power, and privilege can obtain. We are called to embrace the freedom and good news that Jesus offers to us. We are called into a loving relationship with God where we are forgiven, showered with grace, raised with Christ, called into a joyful life of service, named a child of God, given a home, and filled with the Holy Spirit. That is the promise we will find as we follow Christ. That is the promise that will transform us. AMEN