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The Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 15:1-18; Psalm 27:9-17; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:22-35
We begin with Genesis 15, in one of the most significant passages in the entire Old Testament. Here we see God making a promise to Abraham, who doubts because he and his wife have had no child and are past the age where they could. In our day and age it is hard to imagine why this would matter; having children is largely something we have the ability to choose, and many couples choose not to for whatever reasons. Those who want children but cannot have them probably intuitively understand better Abraham and Sarah’s sorrow, because they share it. But even their sorrow doesn’t embrace the fullness of Abraham and Sarah’s. In their time, their place, a child was a gift and object of love as now, but also more. A child was continuation, the preservation of their family, the only means of, in the language of faith, life forever. A person lived on through their child, in their conception of the world, and this had been denied to Abraham: No child, no place of his own, no continuation of his and Sarah’s names. But the promise of God was that he would have a son, many descendants, and a land. This promise, to Abraham, was furthermore not dependent on Abraham. The sacrifices, split in half, was a common ancient practice. When making a covenant of this kind, both parties would travel between the animals, to say “if I should break this promise, may I become like these animals.” But note here: it is only a representation of God that passes between them, while Abraham slept. God’s promise to Abraham was dependent only on God; it was unconditional. Abraham believed God’s promise, and that was all that was needed for him to receive the promise.
Now, you are sitting and thinking perhaps, what on earth does Abraham having a son and a land have to do with me? Oddly enough, everything; God’s promise was made to Abraham in the language and customs and concerns he had, containing the fuller promise. He gives them a promise that seems small in the grand scheme of history, but which is simply the seed of the real promise. God’s promise here is like the seed of a tree. The seed becomes a tiny green plant poking out of the dirt, then a sapling, not much more than a branch. I watched my dad’s trees grow from tiny saplings to great, tall, strong trees. The tree is present in the seed, there, but not yet fully grown. The promise to Abraham seems small to us, but God was giving it to Abraham in a way that made sense, giving him a seed. God’s promise, like the seed of a tree, grew over time, and the full promise, which was present in God’s promise to Abraham like the tree in the seed, is that Jesus Christ died and rose again to save the whole world, and to eventually take away all pain and sadness.
To see the promise as simply what is written in Genesis, we would too easily make the mistake of those condemned in Luke by Jesus. They believed the promise to Abraham but only according to this very literal sense. To them, the unconditional promise meant a land, the city of Jerusalem, God’s favor for them as Abraham’s literal genetic descendants. Their vision of God’s promise was, ultimately, too small, too exclusionary, too materialistic, frankly. By so focusing their ‘faith’ on these things, they became legalistic, obsessed with how to remain pure, how to be given back what empires had taken. But these things were never the point. The land, their lineage, the city of Jerusalem; all were to be starting points, symbols of the love of God where all people were invited in, to follow God and to attain gifts greater than any one land. They failed; they, like their forebears, killed the prophets like Isaiah, Amos, and others, who told them that God desires mercy and not sacrifice, love and not hatred of those outside, changed hearts and not just changed behaviors.
Do we think the same of ourselves? That because we joined a church, show up, offer time and money, take on a Lenten fast, that we have therefore attained the narrow way? That group inclusion means we receive the promise? Far, far too much damage has been done to Christians by others in the Church because they believe that going to the right place, dressing the right way, giving the right things, and behaving the right way is the point. It isn’t and it never was. The goal was and always was the transformation of each everyone of us, by listening to Jesus Christ, believing in him and his work, and therefore standing firm in the Lord as Paul puts it.
Philippians is where we can come to see the point, to see what the fulfillment of this promise to Abraham really means: The promise of a son is fulfilled in “the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” Our eternal life is found therefore in the true Son. The descendants like the stars are US, because those who believe are the sons and daughters of Abraham. Our citizenship is not ultimately in Jerusalem, the United States, or any human land (this is why we have no flag up here); our citizenship is in heaven, which Revelation tells us will one day be married to earth, the true promised land: the transformed Creation filled with transformed People.
Must we live a certain way? Yes, of course. Morality is not ultimately subjective. But when we believe that things like a certain land or a certain people conveniently just like us are the measure of goodness, then we begin to drift into thinking that our lifestyles and behaviors are also the thing that guarantee God’s love and promise. We make God transactional.
This is not The Way. Rather, our transformation begins when we believe the true promise to Abraham, that of actual eternal life in a transformed Creation. And when we do, when we see that this is God’s intention for our world, then the transformation has already begun, and the Holy Spirit begins the work within, moving out. If behaviors or lifestyles change, it is not because we have forced it to earn something, but rather because God has begun to work within us. And, let us be clear, these changes aren’t found in merely conforming, like dressing to match others around you or talking a certain way. That is NOT the imitation Paul is talking about. Rather, it is the imitation of these things: Humility, selflessness, joy, and above all faith, hope, and Love. Many have been like the Pharisees, well-behaved on the outside but rotten within. Without the transformation of love, all the ‘obedience’ in the world is hypocrisy. Lent, therefore, is not simply about giving things up; it is about letting go so we can reorient ourselves to God and make room within for his transformative work. It is to put ourselves to a certain kind of death so that through Christ we may attain resurrection.
And so, we conclude. The promise to Abraham is our promise, but it is not so small as we want to make it. It was always intended as a greater promise than what God spoke to Abraham, communicating in a way he could understand. It was always and never less than this: A Son who ensured eternal life for all as those who will inherit the whole world as citizens of heaven. Let this be our creed, and let the Spirit through our faith in this promise transform us even now into the image of God’s Son. Amen.
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