Sermon: II Lent
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...And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
This was not the first time Abraham had been asked - by the mysterious God that had come to dominate his life - to do something that made no sense to him. He was a Chaldean from the mighty ancient city of Ur, superior in its wealth, architecture, technology and bureaucracy, and devoted to the pagan worship of the Sumerian moon-goddess Nanna who was worshipped in the great ziggurat.
A God named Yahweh came there to tell Abraham to leave Ur. Yahweh also gave him a promise - that he would be the father of a greater nation, and that by this nation the whole world would be blessed. A thousand miles west he camped among the pagan peoples along the road south to Egypt, a land of small vicious tribes, gross immorality, barbaric cruelty, and constant war - all in the service of pagan idols, and waited.
A few years of the daily grind and faster than he ever imagined, Abraham's 99th birthday comes and goes, finding he and his wife very old and very childless, still surrounded by pagans on every side on what was supposed to be his land and was supposed to be filled with his children. All of us have some regrets and disappointments at the end of our lives, but not all of us were promised the moon like Abraham was. The universe is a funny joke, Abraham, and that joke is on you my friend.
Later that year what appears to him to be a traveling soothsayer of some sort shows up with the punch line. He predicts that Sarah who is 90 is about to have a baby. Now that's funny. Then... it happens. Abraham hits 100 while Sarah, who was a bit wobbly already, is trying to carry around a baby growing inside her. This can't work. Can this Yahweh really bring the blessing to the world out of two people who are ‘as good as dead?' What a way to finish a life...
What a way to finish a life! Not until Simeon held our Lord in his hands in the temple 2000 years later did a wrinkled old man look down at a wrinkled little man with more relief and higher expectations. Someday, my son, the world won't be like this - and this land won't be like this. You are the beginning of something amazing that is going to change it all.
The boy is now old enough to get stuck carrying the wood up the hill. Abraham is following him in silence. Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and offer him for a burnt offering. Of course I love him. How could I not love him. You made me wait till the end. If the boy dies what was the point of all of this?
Dad, we've got wood and a way to get the fire going - shouldn't we have brought a lamb to sacrifice to Yahweh? How does a dad answer that question? God will provide himself a lamb, son.
I cannot unravel the great moral mystery that surrounds this command and this act for you. But I can tell you the boy was on the wood and bound, the knife was in the hand, and Abraham's mind and heart and will moved his arm to kill his son.
The bible says it was a temptation or ‘a test' - not an inducement to moral evil but a painful up-close examination to see what was in Abraham's heart. Had Abraham disobeyed he would have been choosing a good part of God's creation over God. He would have kept Isaac as an idol, like Pharaoh's son - the divine heir that would bring peace to the world, and should be protected at all costs.
It was at this moment of Abraham's letting go of this image of power and offering it up to God that THE image that tells THE story about power showed up on that mountain. Prefigured in a lamb that died instead. In losing an idol to see that image of God's saving mercy, Abraham placed himself in a position to be a vehicle of that power as it saved the whole world.
By myself have I sworn, saith Yahweh, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
A decision to lose everything to obey God becomes the very means by which Abraham gains everything for himself and for the world.
2000 years have passed, and that second old man Simeon holds that second child - seed of Abraham and Abraham's descendant David - in his hands, having waited into his last years to see God keep a promise to him. He was promised that he would see God's long-promised anointed King - Messiah - before he died. Now the greatest blessing of Abraham's descendants to the world will at long last come - and I can die a happy man. He tells the mother - you know this won't be easy. Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also... that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. On the way to the blessing of the world people would run his Name down and fight Him and those who loved Him. And on the way to the blessing many people would find out what they were really made of and what their hearts and the eyes of their hearts really desired.
Three decades later, and the boy is now old enough to get stuck carrying the wood up the hill. The gospels differ in many ways, but are all very alike in this one way - the events of today's Gospel are the turning point - the hinge on which the whole story rotates - the moment when Jesus begins openly talking about what he has up until now only hinted at.
And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
He has won a tremendous following with that more subtle approach, and his more-or-less self-appointed chief of staff sees a problem with the shift of tone.
A bit of background - as our story will now turn to him. He was one of the core group that had been lucky enough - blessed enough - to get on the train while the stock was still very low. He was born a fisherman, and now he had a front row seat at the turning point of history. This man he was following around was about to be King - THE king that was Yahweh's blessing to the world promised to Abraham. He would turn the pagans from their idols, send the Roman legions packing and pretty soon Rome would be sending tribute to Yahweh's temple and to this guy's new palace in Jerusalem. And Peter would be there. What a way to end a life!
But Peter was about to find out that on the way to freeing the pagans from their idols, someone else needed to be set free.
It's pretty clear what set Peter off. Jesus was using his outside voice in front of the public and saying that if he went to Jerusalem they would reject him, and they would hurt him, and they would kill him.
And he spake that saying openly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him.
Whatever that rebuke contained, it must have included ‘don't say those things in front of all these people' and ‘that message is not going to help us recruit more supporters'
We've been talking this weekend about the passions - desires of our heart that try to displace our desire for God. One of the big three passions - the ones that get us first and hold us down so the rest of them can finish us off - is the desire to be thought well of by others. It is why Jesus was tempted by Satan to do a spectacular jump off the top of the temple so he could give his reputation a much-needed early boost.
Peter folded like a cheap suit before a little slave girl who noticed his Upper-Berkeley-County accent and said he must be one of Jesus' followers, and resorted to potty mouth so the people around the bonfire wouldn't think ill of him. His heart wanted adulation and approval from others so badly he was willing to throw God under the bus to get it. Can you imagine that? Popularity was his idol, and now he was watching his future fame become present-day scorn because Jesus wouldn't watch what he said in public.
The spanking he was about to get was far worse than just being called Satan: Jesus turns his back on Peter and toward the rest of the guys. This passion was about to get a dose of humiliation. In front of everyone and with Peter standing behind him he says Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men.
The Greek word translated savourest here is from phroneo - it refers to the set of one's mind and will toward a certain object. Peter's heart was aching for the wrong thing. The eyes of his heart were looking at the wrong thing. Peter, in short, had an idol.
Then more salt in the wound: He called the people unto him - those people that Peter had just been telling him wouldn't get it - because Peter was afraid of what they thought of him. "Hey everybody - come over here." As Peter in horror kept his place behind Jesus on the stage, Jesus told them all that anyone who still wanted to be a part of this had to come lose their lives with Him, and then said Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation - Ashamed of me! In this generation! - of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
Six days later Peter followed Jesus on another one of His exhausting hill climbs. Where is he going now...? Since that awkward moment when Jesus had announced his dangerous plan and Peter had tried to be a good first mate and explore some other strategies, and then Jesus had rewarded his loyalty by calling him Satan, Peter had had a lot to think about looking at those square shoulders and that determined pace ahead of him on the road. What was clear was that Jesus was going to go through with it, and based on what he'd seen so far, it would turn out like Jesus said. Darn.
So he knew that it was now do or die, or die or die, or die and live - something like that. Peter had a life, a family, big dreams of being a leader in a restored Israel. This was just a short march to death, this plan of Jesus. He couldn't see how this could be worth it. But he kept following him up the hill.
When they got to the top of the hill, Peter got the answer to a question he wasn't even asking.
And Jesus was transfigured before them: and His face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. When Peter started to make more useful suggestions... a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, listen to Him!
There on that hilltop Peter saw THE image that tells THE story about power, and his idol of the good opinion of others fled into the shadows as God the Father joined in on the extensive project of clearing the idols clouding Peter's eyesight.
It was the Holy Spirit that showed up for graduation. A few weeks later Peter stood in a crowd of pilgrims from all over the empire and shouted let all the house of Israel know that God hath made that same Jesus whom ye have crucified both Lord (kyrios - emperor) and Messiah. For the promise (the promise to Abraham) is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call.
Finally in that moment Peter's idol - the very thing he was counting on to help him be in a position to influence the world - was dislodged from his heart and as a result he could see the glory of Christ. 30 seconds with that idol out of the way and Abraham's blessing flowed through him and traveled at the speed of amazement back home to the synagogues of Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete, and Arabia.
3000 people saw that happen, and whatever it looked like it meant that his speech had to start with the words 'These guys aren't drunk, it's only 9 AM.' They decided that they wanted some of that themselves, and were baptized that day. And Peter had just become the only person on earth besides Lord Caesar who could send an echo to the ends of the inhabited world with a single speech. And unlike Caesar it didn't cost him a penny.
I'd like to close today listening to an echo of the blessing of Abraham coming from the lips of Melito of Sardis in about the year 160, to help us see with Whom we are about to meet in this sacrament, and what He is inviting us to, and what He will through us invite the world to if we can leave our own idols at his altar today.
When the lord had clothed himself with humanity,
And had suffered for the sake of the sufferer,
And had been bound for the sake of the imprisoned,
And had been judged for the sake of the condemned,
And buried for the sake of the one who was buried,
He rose up from the dead,
And cried with a loud voice:
Who is he that contends with me?
Let him stand in opposition to me.
I set the condemned man free;
I gave the dead man life;
I raised up one who had been entombed.
Who is my opponent?
I, he says, am the Christ
I am the one who destroyed death
And triumphed over the enemy,
And trampled Hades underfoot
And bound the strong one
And carried off man
To the Heights of heaven
I, he says, am the Christ
Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness, I am the passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you, I am your ransom, I am your light, I am your saviour, I am your resurrection, I am your king, I am leading you up to the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up by my right hand.
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