Following Faithfully (Genesis 17:1-8,15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38)
There’s a wonderful sentence that begins Hebrews chapter 11: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It is the witness of both the Hebrew and Christian faiths that the unseen world – God and all that God implies in the life of this seen world – is completely and wholly a reality, though unseen. Our faith is the inner and outer assurance and conviction that this is so, even though others may doubt it (and so may we from time to time). In order to think or talk about our faith we seek ways to make that invisible world visible. One way Israel pictured a relationship with the unseen God, was by the idea of covenant, which allowed non-family to relate as family. This week, we focus on God’s covenant love on Abram and Sarai.
The story of the covenant with Abram in Genesis 17 is part of the story that began back in chapter 12 and continues through at least half of the book. Back in chapter 12 God had called Abram to embrace the unfamiliar by leaving his extended family behind in order to become a blessing to the whole world. If Abram and Sarai followed God faithfully, God promised them numerous offspring and a land. As the story unfolds, it seems like the days after that promise came and went for the couple but no heir appeared. Days, months and years went by, and finally, Abram took matters into his own hands, and followed the custom of his day to provide an heir for himself through Sarai’s handmaid Hagar. That heir was Ishmael. Again, in the Bible’s final form, the story of Ishmael intrudes into the middle of the story of God’s covenant with Abram. In chapter 15 God made a covenant with Abram. After the Ishmael interval in chapter 16 we arrive at today’s text, that involves a solemn discussion of what looks like the same covenant as chapter 15: the promise of land and an heir. God even called this covenant an everlasting covenant. What wonderful words! What terrible ones! Can you imagine hearing them standing in Abram’s shoes?
Abram was, by now, nearly a hundred years old. It had been a quarter of a century since he received the promise of chapter 12, and life had seemed just the same. True God had blessed from time to time, but there was no heir – no fulfillment of the promise. Had God forgotten? Think what you were doing in 1993 (if you can remember or were even alive). It’s long ago. If Abram had been an American he might have quoted that good old slogan that many people think is in the Bible “God helps those who help themselves” as he decided to become involved with Hagar. I mean, it was only reasonable for him to take a little action. So he fathered Ishmael. Was Abram thinking , at least tacitly, “No problem, God, I’ve got this.” Nonetheless, God acts as if unaware of what’s happened and, in a difficult line, commanded Abram, “Walk before me and be blameless.” I’m ceertain that’s a bad translation and the one that says “Walk before me and be perfect” is worse. We already know that Abram was neither blameless or perfect, at least in their common meaning of “flawless.” That ship had sailed. Just read chapter 13 and find out but one example of what Abram was capable of doing to save his hide. Now, at age 99 Abram and Sarai are to be parents. “I’ve got this?” “We’ve got this?” Not so much.
So what did God mean by, “Walk before me and be blameless”? The word “walk” is the standard word for “going,” however one does it. This particular form of the verb has the sense of perpetual going, “living.” God said, “Live before me,” which, literally is “in front of my face.” The presence of God is often symbolized as God’s “face.” So Abram is charged to live face-to-face with God. This not only implies that God always sees, but that Abram will always be in relationship with God. To be in such relationships means taking God’s values as his own. Please hear what I say next. This does not mean coming up with a list of things that doing or not doing keeps us in the presence of God (or in good with God, or gets me to heaven, or makes me successful, you pick the cliché), for then we’ve substituted a business contract for a covenant. Walking face-to-face with God is as far as possible from this. It is having God’s values of love, mercy, care, nurture, at the core of our being and watching what behaviours develop in what circumstances.
Then, there is that word “blameless” or “perfect,” though I have already rejected both translations. To make a long story short (and if you want a longer story, ask later) the word here means, pretty much what God had asked of Abram before, faithful following with integrity. God said this to Abram who was already demonstrably not always that kind of guy.
To get back to our story, when God revealed that the plan for land and an heir was still on the table, after all this time, we read that Abram fell down on his face before God, a gesture of contrition, throwing himself on God’s mercy. What else could he do? Did Abram began to realize that he didn’t understand what it meant to work with God who offers a covenant, but seems to work on a different timetable, with different goals than people do?
When Sarai found out, she laughed out loud, as her husband had. Here we are at nearly 100 years old, and we’re going to do that!? I don’t mean to imply here that Abram acted sinfully in the whole business with Hagar. Such was the common way to deal with producing heirs in that time. We can say that the story, at this point, is at loose ends, and Ishmael’s presence leaves it there. He is honoured and blessed by God, but, according to this story, he’s not the heir. All of you know, of course, that Ishmael is claimed as the ancestor of the Palestinian population. The story goes on. But that’s not the point for this morning.
The point of it all for us today is that God makes a covenant even with human beings like Abram who have not understood God’s ways, who have been impatient with the way the story is going along and want to do their own bit to forward the action in their favour. Although Paul in Romans 4 points to the faith with which Abram obeyed God, we need to understand that his obedience only came via a circuitous route, like ours. And that God has made covenant, not on the basis of getting it all right, but on the living faithfully face to face with God, like Abram.
The conversation-partner with our thinking about covenant relationships, and how they sometimes come in spite of us, are the Gospel stories of Jesus journey to Easter, which run straight through the cross. It seems that such journeys to the newness of Easter usually do run though wilderness places. The days of Lent give us the time to plat a map through such places as we share them with Jesus and others.
The old Genesis story lays a foundation for this Gospel lesson in Mark 8. Just before we come into the story, Peter, on behalf of the other apostles, has confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus has accepted this designation. Following on this confession of faith, our passage for today gives a thumb-nail sketch of what Jesus’ view of the Messiah was, linked inextricably to what a disciple of the Messiah looked like.
Basically Jesus said that the Messiah is the Servant of the Lord from Isaiah 40-55 who brings wholeness to people through service, even extending to suffering and death on their behalf. The Messiah’s disciples, quite simply, imitate the Messiah. In this story a key role of the Messiah is forming the template for a covenant community of faithful followers. Following Jesus does not mean seeking power and honour for ourselves and those like us. The rewards of self-promoting behaviour are momentary, and, in the end it leads to a loss of self. To find our life we’ve got to lose ourselves in God’s work of being a blessing to all the families of the earth.
Wedged in between Jesus’ definition of the Messiah and his definition of a disciple there is an exchange between Jesus and his friend Simon the Rock. This is the core of the passage. Here, within a sentence or two of praising Peter’s identification of him as the Messiah, Jesus called Peter Satan, which is a Hebrew common noun that simply means “adversary.” It doesn’t always mean the devil. Jesus told Peter to “get behind him,” which also is exactly what he said to those who would follow him down in verse 34. “If any want to get behind me (follow me), let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” In other words, to follow Jesus one must adopt the values of one who came, not to be served but to serve. Peter needed to follow not lead. His whole approach was based on values that said leading was better. This is a common human mistake. Abraham thought he needed to hammer God’s blessing into an Ishmael shape, rather than the shape that God had in mind. He forgot that the core of God’s call was being blessed to be a blessing to the world. It was not about his own blessing or even survival in the world, although these things did happen along the way. Such mistaken thinking is common.
Peter misunderstood what it meant to set his mind on the things of God. It was a natural mistake in both cases. In Abraham’s world having no heir meant the end, since the Hebrews believed their only life after death was through their children. It was normal thinking. Peter had always been taught that the Messiah was a conquering hero who would make Israel’s “enemies” bow down to them, and would give them political victories so that they could be great, prosperous and successful. It was all perfectly normal thinking. And completely wrong.
And yet, Peter didn’t stop being Jesus’ friend and disciple because he got it wrong. Abraham did not cease to be the friend of God, the father of the faithful (as all three monotheistic religions on this planet – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam call him) because he didn’t get it. He didn’t stop being the heir of God’s promise and covenant because he took matters into his own hands. No, the covenant-making God already knew the what the partners in covenant were like. Remember, “the inclinations of their hearts were harmful from youth.” God offered covenant anyway, and expects us to do the same for others we meet.
Paul in Romans 4 offers us all hope when he tells us that Abraham did not inherit the promise through the law, but through his faith, so that the promise might rest on God’s grace, not upon what he had earned. Being translated from the word of a first-century rabbi this means that Abraham did not inherit the promise because he got everything right, or because he believed the right things, but because he had the audacity to keep on trusting that God could do the impossible with him. It is not that he couldn’t mess up (which a glance at his story in Genesis 12-25 will show he did), it’s that the promise didn’t depend upon his perfection, but on God’s grace, and on Abraham’s persistence in betting his life in the direction of the covenant- making God and that grace. Faithful following.
Your see, these texts offer an alternate reality to our misunderstanding of the things of God as about rules (positive or negative), institutions, power and money. In this reality fulfillment lies in suffering and service, holding out reminders that God yet makes covenant with imperfect creatures because God has created us and loves us in spite of it all?
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.