Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:34-38
Two children were getting ready to go home. One had experienced a marvelous day, the other not so much.
“We should do this again tomorrow?”
“Sounds good to me.”
The second child crosses his fingers behind his back and responds, “I promise.”
As we grow older we find multiple ways to cross our fingers.
“I promise I will call the first chance I get.”
“We should do lunch soon.”
“If I can find a way, it will happen.”
Promises are a lot easier to make than to keep. This is what makes our Old Testament text so remarkable.
Abraham is 99 years old. Yahweh comes to him and says, “I make a promise that your grandchildren and great grandchildren shall be numerous.”
Did I mention that Abraham was 99? Did I mention that Sarah was not much younger? Did I mention Abraham and Sarah had no children? What kind of foolishness is this? Did I mention the fundamental thrust of the Old Testament is the establishment of a relationship between God and Israel? Did I mention that relationship was based on a promise?
I was at a workshop this week where William Willimon boldly declared God chooses us, we don’t choose God. When he first made that statement I was a bit put off. Of course I chose God. No one in their right mind would be a minister without choosing God. But then Willimon clarified his statement. Godly choice is based on a promise, a covenant, that neither party would desert the other.
That makes a whole lot of difference. A quick reading of Genesis reveals that Isaac, then Jacob and Esau, and then the 12 boys who claim Jacob were the genesis of a new nation. That is not even counting Jacob’s girls or any of the kids sired by Esau. God kept God’s promise. So how well did those children do in remembering that Yahweh was their God? According to the next 38 books of the Old Testament, they didn’t do so well.
Well I am thinking to myself, Will Willimon might be one of the top ten preachers in America, he might be a pretty smart cookie, he might have even found himself on my bookshelf but the Bible doesn’t stop with Malachi. What about the gospels? What about Jesus? Doesn’t the scoreboard start all over again?
I wanted to raise my hand and challenge this dean of all things Methodist but one of the other folks beat me to it. I am so glad I remained silent. Willimon took the question, smiled, and paraphrased Mark 8:34. “If you want to keep my promise, deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow me.”
When I was a theological child, bent on charging windmills to hell and back for a heavenly cause, I loved that passage. “Jesus, my Jesus, your wish is my command.” “Jesus, my Jesus, I will follow you anywhere.” “Jesus, my Jesus, I will lead the way.”
Then I had children. I bought a house. I became respectable. Oh, I gave Jesus credit for every single one of those blessings. But I was no longer ready to deny myself. As for cross bearing, I engaged in theological discussions which questioned if the cross and suffering adequately described God’s redemptive love.
Culture can do that to you. Being happy, being comfortable, being friendly, being respected become goals worth obtaining. And those aren’t just personal goals. It is what we want our church to be. You ask most folks what they are looking for in a church and they will say, “I want to find a congregation that is friendly. I want to find a church that is stress free. I want to find a pastor that preaches sermons that make me feel good.” That sounds wonderful, but it has little to do with denying ourselves for Jesus.
Let me entertain you with a couple of questions about our Lord and Savior.
What was Jesus’ home address? He slept in the hills, he slept on a boat, he occasionally invited himself to stay overnight with friends but for the life of me I can’t find where it says Jesus had a mortgage.
What kind of paying job did Jesus have? Luke suggests that he worked for his father before his baptism. But once his ministry began, I can’t find any evidence to suggest Jesus made a penny. No wonder he ate with the tax collectors, sinners, and even the Pharisees. He probably hadn’t had a good meal in a month.
What was his message to the good people of Israel? That’s easy. He talked of love. He talked of community. He talked about heaven. He talked about all those things that we find so appealing.
So why did they kill Jesus? I asked that question to some of peers recently. It was amazing the response I received. One person,, whose name wasn’t Bill Clinton asked, “How do you define ‘they’?” Before I could answer he continued. “Is ‘they’ the Romans? Is ‘they’ the Jews? Is ‘they’ us. Don’t we kill Jesus every time we sin?”
A second of my clergy peer continued. “Your question is too simplistic. We must explore the theological reasons as to why the suffering of Jesus was necessary. Don’t you believe in the doctrine of Atonement? Don’t you believe Jesus had to be killed and resurrected in order that you might be saved?”
The rest of the group nodded their heads as if to acknowledge one has to be careful not to be too literal when treading on theological cornerstones. So I approached the question a different way. I asked, “In the Gospel of Mark it appears to me Jesus was killed because he questioned the actions of the religious leaders. What were they doing that made Jesus so mad?”
The person who called my initial question a bit too simplistic once again entered the conversation. “The priest didn’t want Jesus to overturn the applecart. They had a system in place that worked. They would conduct worship, keep the holy days, offer prayers when needed, and the people would respond with their offerings.”
I should have kept quiet but I couldn’t help myself. I responded, “Kind of like we do today.” (stop)
How often have you heard someone say, “The church is the place I go to escape the world.”
How many times have you witnessed a preacher who was loved by his congregation when he was in the pulpit but became conspicuously absent when a family was in the midst of a personal crisis?
How many times have you heard folks argue, “No one knows the truth, we all have differing opinions.” Yet how many times have we read where Jesus truthfully said, “Take care of the stranger, she is a child of God.” Or, “If you hurt one of my little ones, place a millstone around your own neck and jump into the lake.” Or, “You hypocrites, you preach for law and order but have forgotten to execute justice and mercy.” Or, “You snakes, you build your alters with the tithes of the poor and the blind and then call them accursed.” How many times did Jesus say, “I am the truth!”
Is it any wonder they killed Jesus? He spoke to a people who had manufactured a lie and called it holy. I wonder what words Jesus would utter to us should he grace our doorsteps this morning. Jesus might ask, “Why are children rather than ministers leading conversations concerning violence?” Or, “Why are the victims rather than the Bishops exposing sexual predators?” Or, “Why do strangers and aliens have to hide in the shadows when my church is a sanctuary?”
Can you imagine Jesus asking us to take up the cross? And if we said yes, how long would it be before we broke our promise? You see, God through Christ contradicts so many of our most basic beliefs. The truth is Jesus’ mercy is given to sinners, not reserved for the righteous. Jesus’ strength is exposed in weakness, not displayed in power. Jesus’ wisdom is veiled in parable and paradox, not in self-help axioms. Jesus’ life is disclosed in death. God has never conformed to human desires. God is found most often in uncertainty, danger and suffering, which is precisely where most us least desire to be. With these expectations, one would have to be crazy to choose God.
But God continues to choose us. Last Sunday, in the second service, it came time for the joys and concerns. Now in first service joys and concerns regularly include the latest international crisis that has made it to the Sunday edition of National Public Radio causing joys and concerns to rival the sermon in length. In the second service, joys and concerns rarely lasts longer than the Doxology. So last Sunday in second service imagine my surprise when Betty Marker stood to speak. Betty is my neighbor. She is well read, well-mannered, and well respected. Betty used to teach school. In two sentences, she quietly displayed her dismay over the children killed at Stoneman Douglas High School. Then she intentionally used the word “gun”. There was a gasp or two. Someone clapped their hands. Then there was that uncomfortable silence that happens when we wonder if maybe Jesus just spoke.
My friends, Jesus never speaks conventional wisdom. Jesus never seems to say what we want to hear. Often the words of Jesus are painful to our ears, yet those words bring comfort to the stranger, the outcast, or the neighbor.
So keep your ears open. Just the fact that you are here qualifies you to be chosen to encounter God’s whisper. Choosing to share those dangerous words with others is what the writer of Genesis would call Promise Keeping.
To God be the glory. Amen.