A Homily for the Second Sunday in Lent
Texts: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25;* St. Mark 8:31-38
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who brings us into the everlasting covenant. Amen.
Pretend for a moment that you get to enact your plan change the world.
Who do pick to put things in motion? Close your eyes for just a moment and try to envision this person: Is it a general? A queen of royal and ancient blood? Perhaps a superhero? What’s this person’s character like? Are they honest, intelligent, humble, a perfectionist?
I would guess that none of you picked someone like Abram.
He’s not exactly the ideal candidate: at ninety-nine years old, he and his wife are slave-owning shepherds. On more than one occasion, Abram gave his wife to another man to save his own skin. Just before today’s reading, Sarai and Abram conspire to commit a horrific act of sexual violence against Hagar, their slave, before exiling both Hagar and Abram’s own unborn son, Ishmael, into the wilderness.
Growing up, we used to sing a song in Sunday School, “Father Abraham Had Many Sons,” but that fun little tune conveniently left out just how terrible Abram and Sarai were. And they don’t get better after God gives them new names.
And yet, Abram – sinful, broken, cowardly Abram – and Sarai – cold, abusive, sinful Sarai – are precisely who God chose to make a covenant with. From the very beginning of their story, the Lord calls Abram and Sarai and promises that through their descendants “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” From Abram’s first appearance in Genesis 12 through his death thirteen chapters later, we see a continued unfolding of God’s covenant with this “First Family”.
After all that has happened since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden – Cain slaying Abel, the Flood and the covenant with Noah’s descendants and their own wickedness, the tower at Babel – you could be forgiven for thinking this has to be, what, the fallback for the fallback plan to redeem humanity? But Abraham’s kids are no better than him, so when this covenant fails, God moves on to a new plan involving Moses and Joshua,
and then the Judges, and when all of those people fail, we get Saul, who drops the ball, and then a covenant with David, and when that plan falls short and ends in exile, we get Jesus – a last ditch effort as though God said, “Fine, I’ll do it myself.”
Or at least that’s how some would have us read the Bible.
But no, this was always Plan A. This is all ne on-going narrative.
Everything we’ve read or will read, all of Scripture is understood through the lens of God’s plan to bless the world through the descendants of Abraham and Sarah.
The first chapters were leading up to them, and everything that follows flows from them. As flawed as they are, and as flawed as Isaac, and Esau and Jacob, and the Twelve Sons of Israel, and Moses and Aaron and Miriam, and Saul and David and Solomon, and the Prophets, and the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the elders, Scribes, and the Chief Priests, and the Twelve Disciples all are, this has always been God’s plan.
The Lord God made a promise to Abraham, and despite our repeated efforts to break the covenant, despite humanity’s ongoing sinful rebellion, the Lord remains faithful. Abraham and Sarah are constantly, time and time again, in the wrong, uncapable of righteousness – that is to say, unable to keep up their part of the covenant. Their heirs are constantly in the wrong, repeatedly unfaithful. Jacob betrays Esau, and Joseph’s brothers sell him in to slavery.
But God, in infinite grace and love, is always steadfast. From the earliest days of this whole crazy scheme, God took Abraham and Sarah’s imperfect faith to be righteousness. Despite human sinfulness, God has fulfilled the covenant.
Even in bringing the plan to completion, though, God again throws a curveball. Who would choose to fulfill that covenant through suffering and death at the hands of the Romans?
What sort of God says, “Yeah, I’ll endure the indignity of becoming a human. I’ll take the form of an infant and be cared for. I’ll become a teenager and go through that awkward thing called puberty. I’ll sweat and get tired and know the pain of hunger and need. I’ll face temptation. I will face down angry and murderous crowds. And then I’ll hand myself over to the Romans, allow them to torture me, and then carry my own cross to the place of my execution.”
It’s a crazy plan! Who can blame Peter for thinking it sounds a little bit nuts?
But this is how it has played out: God chose an undeserving family and promised to make them a nation that, despite their infidelity, would become a blessing for a sinful world. And after more tragic turns than heroic triumphs, God brought this promise to completion by becoming a frail human surrounded by a ragtag team of folks who just didn’t get it – folks like Simon Peter. AND THEN! left those folks to start a Church full of people like you and I to continue that work.
Today, Scripture isn’t extolling the virtues of Abraham and Sarah. Saint Paul isn’t telling us to be like them; Paul knows their story, knows that in Genesis, just before what we read a few minutes ago, Abram and Sarai abused their slave and her child. And Paul knows new names didn’t make them better people. No, today, Saint Paul is reminding us that God is the hero of the story. God is the faithful and righteous one. The covenant is only everlasting because the Lord has graciously blessed the world through Abraham and Sarah. That family, as awful as they could be, as much as it sounds like their story was ripped from a bad soap opera, and as long as it took, led to Jesus the Christ, who is the fulfillment of God’s promise. And through Christ, God has offered the entire world entry into that blessed family.
All that has flowed from the Fall through Abraham and Sarah has been leading to Jerusalem and the Cross – but then to the Resurrection, to the point when sin and death are overturned, that ultimate blessing that is Good News for all humanity.
Hear again what Paul says:
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith….For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham….
It’s not about us or our ability. It’s not because we’re so great. It’s about what God is doing because we’re not so great. It is because the Lord is faithful, which is to say God is the person in whom we can put our trust.
And why can we trust God?
Because the Lord is faithful when we are not. Because our Heavenly Father has raised Christ from the dead, defeating the powers of sin and death. Christ, though he died for our sins, has been raised for our justification – putting us on the right side of God’s covenant.
In Baptism, that wondrous means of God’s grace, we are joined into the Body of the Christ and his resurrection. Through Christ, we are brought into God’s covenant with Abraham. As members of the covenant with Abraham, we are part of God’s plan to bless the entire world. Therefore, as baptized people, we are now part of God’s plan to be a blessing to the world.
When I’m most honest with myself, I don’t think I would elect someone who looks like me to be a blessing in the world. In the silence of confession, I know how long my litany is. I know my own faults – at least, some of them. I’m too much like Peter, thinking I know better than God.
Yet the Lord God Almighty has called all of us – each and every one of you, together – with all of our imperfections, all of our brokenness, all of our sin.
God calls us just as the Lord called Abram and Sarai and Simon and Saul. As far as we have fallen, God has called us into the covenant through Baptism, and given us new identities like Abraham, Sarah, Peter, and Paul.
Here and now, God is making us into new people and using us as a blessing to this part of the world. This little ragtag congregation in this small city has, from the very beginning of this long story, been called to be a blessing. Not because we are so great but because God is so great. Because Christ has defeated sin and death and fulfilled God’s promise to Abram and Sarai.
*This homily is greatly informed by the writing of Bishop N.T. Wright, particularly his book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (IVP Academic: 2009).