Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 28 February 2021.
• First Reading: Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16 (God’s covenant with Abram – ‘Walk before Me faithfully and be blameless’)
• Psalm 22: 22-30
• Epistle: Romans 4: 13-25 (Abraham’s righteousness came by faith, not law)
• Gospel: Mark 8: 31-38 (If anyone is ashamed of Me, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when He comes in His Father’s glory)
I think that we are all familiar with the idea of a contract, in which two parties agree to do certain things. It is fulfilled when both parties carry out the commitments that they have signed up to, and each party agrees to act or to refrain from acting in the ways specified by the contract.
Even when the parties are quite unequal in powers and resources, in the sight of the law they are equally committed to the contract.
But the stories in Genesis about the travels and travails of Abram – or Abraham are quite different, for they centre on the relationship between Abram – a wandering herdsman, quite probably of some considerable means, and God.
Whatever his standing and resources, Abram can claim nothing from God and has absolutely no rights before Him.
But God honours Abram anyway, and speaks to him and makes promises to him. Abram can do absolutely nothing to earn the favour of God and there in no court or arena in the universe in which Abram can compel God to give answer for anything.
In everything, Abram is completely dependent on God, in what He says, when and where He says it, how He says it and with what effect it is said.
And yet in all this, God comes to Abram and makes solemn promises that are eternal. God commits Himself to Abram, and looks for Abram’s commitment in return. But whereas the commitment of God is eternal and from one end of the universe to the other, Abram’s commitment is for the duration of his life, and covers his dealings with others as a measure of his commitment to God.
And so God says to Abram, “Walk before Me faithfully and be blameless.” It is not so much that Abram is to perform some specific tasks, but that he is to be something in the sight of God.
Abram’s commitment is existential – and it is to be part of his personal identity for the rest of his life.
There are no laws to be kept, only relationships to be fostered. His actions are to be just and his relationships wholesome. His priorities are to centre on God and not on himself. And he has to work all this out as he goes along.
Above all, Abram’s life is to be one lived in the sight of God without hesitation and without regret. And yet in all this, God was regarding Abram as righteous in His sight – holy, acceptable, without stain or condemnation.
In the gospel, Jesus prepares His disciples for one event which will have two effects.
The first is His warning of the disciples of His own coming death and resurrection. This was always to be the fulfilment of both His incarnation and His ministry. His steps were always going to be steps on a journey to the cross, and there was never going to be any other way of atoning for the sins of the human race.
The disciples however had come to see something of Jesus power over sickness and death, over the elements and over the weather.
They had heard His teaching and parables, seen the miracles and witnessed the disputes with the scribes, Pharisees and all other challengers. But they were still not ready for what was to come, and so Jesus was preparing them.
And yet Peter was quite unwilling to be so prepared. There must be another way and he sought to persuade Jesus. For if the cross was to be Jesus’ destiny, then how would Peter’s fate turn out?
But no, Peter’s vision and understanding were incomplete, and He saw only the short term, and not the hidden purposes of God for eternity. Satan might have understood, but not Peter. And so the harsh rebuke from Jesus.
But then if the cross was Jesus’ destiny, then He was also warning the disciples that they would also find it for themselves.
This was the second aspect of Jesus’ warning. The disciples would also find the cross in their own lives. Some, like Peter and Andrew, would find it literally.
Others like John, would find it as they were imprisoned for Jesus’ sake. And disciples down the ages have come to face terrible penalties for following Jesus.
It is easy for us, living in comfort and security to rationalize the rather trivial issues of social ridicule and abuse, of personal trials and discomforts into the cross and to lose sight of the terrible penalties paid by disciples of Jesus in other times and lands for their faith.
Yet despite all this we also are instructed to take up the same cross and to carry it for Jesus’ sake. It might mean being willing to be known to be His disciples when others prefer to keep quiet and to hope that the occasional smile will be enough.
It may mean speaking out when others are silent about a social and cultural evil which has become so common as to be fashionable.
It may mean being willing to forgive that unforgettable betrayal, to carry that unspeakable sorrow, to pray that impossible prayer and to hold to that unquenchable faith in the worst and most unforgiving of places.
It may even mean asking the Lord to show us the cross in our lives that we have been avoiding, and for strength to take it up, for His sake.