Our first reading for today describes the second covenant God made with humankind. The first covenant was made with Noah and all the people and creatures who survived the flood. God hung the bow up in the sky, the weapon of hunting and fighting, as a symbol of God’s promise to never destroy the earth again. Humankind may be responsible for destruction on earth, but God will not destroy creation. Whenever God sees the rainbow, God remembers the covenant. Now God is making a covenant with Abram, who he will rename Abraham (father of a multitude). Just as our story for last week noted, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God” so now God tells Abram to “walk before me, and be blameless.” Just as creation was marked by the rainbow to remind God of a commitment to humankind, now Abram’s family is marked to show its privileged relationship with God.
God promises Abraham two things: descendants and land. Over and over again the descendants of Abraham will face obstacles to the realization of one or both parts of the covenantal promise, and the people will wonder if God will keep the promises. Just as Isaac is born to ninety-year-old Sarah and one hundred-year-old Abraham, so the people will eventually be led to the Promised Land. Centuries later, after being taken into exile in Babylon, they will return to reclaim the land, and again after the unthinkable, the Holocaust, it will become the nation of Israel, a safe haven for a people who were rejected by so many countries even after such unimaginable persecution and suffering.
Paul uses the story of Abraham in his letter to the Romans as an example of how God takes the initiative to set people in right relationship with God, and to show that the appropriate human response is to have faith in God’s promises. Abraham’s faith is not a work that earned him God’s favor, it was the right response to God’s free gift of righteousness. Abraham did not do anything to earn God’s favor, what makes him special is that in spite of making mistakes he always trusted God and God’s promises.
Abraham is the first patriarch of Israel, but he is more than that even in Jewish tradition. God promised to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham, to make him the ancestor of many nations – which does not mean a political or geographical country, but rather many different ethnicities. Paul tells us that the descendants of Abraham, who also inherit the promises made to him, are not just his biological descendants but all who share his faith in God. Paul insists that the inclusion of Gentiles in the community of faith is part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to make Abraham the father of many nations. And so, we call him, “Father Abraham.”
The trust that Abraham had in God, in spite of how illogical or impossible God’s promises may seem, is what makes Abraham righteous before God. Paul reminds us that it is the same for all who trust that God makes promises to sinful human beings and fulfills them. God’s ultimate promise is that of the Messiah, a promise which we believe was fulfilled in Jesus. The God of Abraham is the same God who has dealt decisively with the sin that alienates us humans from God through the death of Jesus, God’s son. By raising Jesus from the dead, God makes it possible for us to live new lives in a restored relationship with God and with others. This is a pure gift of grace, we just have to believe and trust that it is true.
Accepting that life and relationship with God is a gift, based on trust, can be hard in a world where career advancement, good grades in school and many other things depend on our ability to perform. We have all experienced the pain of broken promises or promises that are made lightly, so we can be pretty skeptical when people say, “just trust me.” We may wonder if our faith is as strong and unwavering as that of Abraham, or of Paul, and worry if we can fall out of favor with God. But the hope we have lies not in Abraham’s or Paul’s faith, it lies in God’s honesty and faithfulness to us. We will always have moments of doubt, just as Abraham did, but God still fulfills the promises.
Our gospel story depicts Peter as he struggles with his new-found faith in Jesus as the Messiah. In the verses preceding our story, Jesus asked his disciples, “who do people say that I am?” They answered him, “John the Baptizer, Elijah and others.” He asks, “but who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”
Then Jesus begins to teach them about what will ultimately happen to him, that he will undergo great suffering and will be rejected by the religious authorities, he will be killed and after three days will rise again. Peter is naturally very upset by these words and takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter wants to keep Jesus safe, and avoid this terrible fate he anticipates. But this gets Peter into big trouble with Jesus. Peter is the first in this gospel to understand who Jesus is, but he cannot wrap his mind around what Jesus must do because of who he is. Peter understands what Jesus told them, but he doesn’t like it and wants to create a different ending to the story.
Peter has not yet been able to set his mind on the things of God, he is focusing on human things. He wants to be the leader, and save Jesus from the awful things he has described to them. He is looking through human eyes rather than the eyes of God, and he needs an “attitude adjustment” in order to be a faithful follower. That will happen, at the end of the Gospel of Mark. After the women discover the empty tomb, they are instructed by the angel to go and tell Peter and the others that Jesus will see all of them in Galilee. Peter will receive that blessing, the gift of understanding, when he encounters the risen Jesus. Ultimately he become of leader of those who also believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Messiah.
Jesus knows what he must do in order to fulfill the promise, even though his followers obviously do not like it, and he gives us pretty clear instructions as to what we must do in order to follow him. We must follow behind him, as the leader, Jesus comes first. We must deny ourselves – which means to be willing to allow God to be the controlling force in our lives, rather than our own will. We must take up our cross – which does not refer to the burdens life imposes on us but rather to difficult, sometimes painful, but always redemptive action that we voluntarily undertake for others. Jesus says “pick up and carry” the cross, which brings to mind the condemned person who had to carry their cross to the place of execution, while they were ridiculed by the onlookers. Perhaps we are also being called to publicly display our faith and be willing to suffer any consequences as a result.
We live in the now and not yet, we see and believe what Jesus has done and what we are to do, but it isn’t completely clear. We are waiting for that final healing touch, that final revelation, like the post-resurrection appearances by Jesus. We follow Jesus, but, like Peter, we get distracted by human things rather than the things of God. God has always been in the business of creating out of nothing, and of bringing life to where there is only barrenness and death. As we reflect on the brokenness of our lives and the world during Lent, we find hope knowing that God works where we least expect it. We trust in the promises God has made and continues to fulfill. Amen.