When I walked forward at the age of 11 and “committed my life to Christ” I had no idea where the journey would lead. I was a child and at a Baptist camp, and the future was something distant and unimaginable. My journey was one step at a time. At the time I sensed and knew that God was calling me to full time Christian service and that I was making a full commitment of my life to God, but I didn’t know what form it would take. I sensed I was different than others who walked forward with me.
When I said, “I will follow”, I had no idea where the years would lead. There was no way to predict where the path would lead. The person I have become and the way my life has evolved has been surprising to the say the least in some ways, in other ways, I say, “well, of course this was how it was going to end up”.
I suspect that while the details may vary, many of you have experienced the same thing.
The turns that life takes often surprises us. Life comes at you fast—and in ways that you never expected. Whenever I have joined another person or group of people, it has always turned out differently than I had imagined.
It may have worked out that way for you. Whether you were getting married, taking a job, starting a business or joining a church, who among us could anticipate all the events and changes that are a part of life? That can be a little un-settling; particularly for those of us who like to be in control. The truth is life seldom follows the scripts we so carefully map out in our heads. It may be that one of the critical variables among people is their ability to shift gears when faced with obstacles; how do they respond when the path they planned to take is closed. How well can they adjust to change?
We have seen during this pandemic that businesses that were able to shift gears quickly; to take their inside business and somehow make it accessible without contact are faring better than those who were not able to shift as quickly.
In a congregation, where you are adding members while other members exit the scene, there is constant change and re-negotiation.
Even in your faith relationship with God, when you keep growing, when you keep learning, when you keep having new experiences; you have to keep incorporating this new information into your understanding of God.
When your first plan fails, how well can you shift to plan B? I suspect that for most of us, life is lived in plan B.
The original path was closed and we had to choose another route. For some it was a first career, for others it was a first marriage. For some of us, it was coming to the reality that the faith we had inherited from our family no longer fit. We had grown, we had moved on, and the faith of our family didn’t fit any more.
Plan B has been a staple for generations of Jewish and Christian believers. As their understanding of God grew and evolved it brought changes to their faith. As their situation changed, they found new ways to live out their faith. Change has always been a four letter word. Change is not a word we want to hear—in private or in public. When someone starts talking about change, it makes our skin crawl, it feels downright uncomfortable. As we grow, it is important to have a growing and maturing faith, which includes change.
Our OT lesson is about Abraham and his journey of faith.
To give you some background to Abraham, we are initially introduced to Abram when he was a young adult. His family unit was led by his father, Terah. Terah had decided to migrate from the area of Ur of the Chaldees to the land of Canaan. Abram and Sarai get swept along by Terah’s decision. Terah is the patriarch, so he gets to decide.
They start out on the journey, they make it as far as Haran, and then they settle down. Terah’s initial dream of going to Canaan falls by the wayside, he settles for Haran. Years later, after his father’s death, Abram resumes the journey to Canaan. Sometimes the dream of one generation gets taken up by the next.
Abram gets the call from God to go to this Promised Land. He understands that God has plans for him. And the plans are not just for him; this is not just a private thing between God and Abram. Abram fits into God’s bigger plan. God is going to use Abram and his descendants to bless all the people of the earth. He promised to make Abram the father of great nation.
The problem was that Abram and Sarai have been married for years and still no children.
Abram believed God. Years passed and still no children. Abram wondered if he might need to consider Plan B.
If a man died without children, it was a common practice for the chief servant to be adopted as the heir. Perhaps that is the plan? In Genesis chapter 15, God nixs that plan. “Eliezer will not be your heir; your own son will be your heir.” More years passed and still no son. Then Sarai suggested another Plan B. “Here is my servant Hagar, have a child by her and he can be your heir.”
So Abraham goes to Hagar and she conceives and has a son Ishmael.
Our text picks up today with the Lord appearing to Abram and clarifies the terms of the covenant. While Abram had seen Eliezer and Ishmael as possible fulfillments of the covenant, God restates the covenant with one addition; God includes Sarai in this covenant. God’s promises would be fulfilled not just by Abram’s descendants, but by Abram and Sarai’s descendants.
As I follow Abram’s story, it is interesting to notice the evolution of Abram’s understanding of God’s plan. He gets it little by little, probably never fully understanding all that God wanted to do. He tries to make things happen on his own.
That seems to be the way it is with all of us. We are all limited by our understanding, our comprehension.
Abraham is honored by Jews and Christians alike as a pioneer of faith. Abraham trusted God to keep his agreement. He trusted God even when God’s promises exceeded his ability to understand or comprehend.
Faith is a journey and the season of Lent is a time to become more reflective.
In the Gospel text this morning, we see a shift in Mark’s Gospel. Up to this point Jesus was busy with his Galilean ministry
Jesus has been preaching and teaching about the coming Kingdom of God. Other than the occasional visitor from Jerusalem who kept tabs on his ministry, Jesus had escaped the scrutiny of official Judaism. Here we see Jesus changing direction; he is turning his face toward Jerusalem and what is to come and has decided to confront the Jewish leadership directly.
Just prior to this passage, Jesus wants to know what the disciples have learned and where they stood in their faith journey up to this point. Peter spoke up and proclaimed, “You are the Messiah”.
Understanding was growing. After Peter’s confession, Jesus began to teach them about the reception he would receive in Jerusalem. He would be rejected and killed. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “You’ve got to stop this crazy talk about suffering and dying. When I said Messiah, I didn’t mean anything about failure, suffering, or death. When I said Messiah, I meant King, I meant success, I meant victory. Stop this talk about death—it’s not good for morale—we can’t attract followers to the movement if you go negative with the message. Stay upbeat—use words that will make people feel good. We can make this work if you will just stay on message—remember, keep it short, keep it sweet, keep it positive….” Jesus stops him in mid-sentence, “Get behind me Satan, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.
This is not going to end up like you think. This is going to end badly—there is going to be blood and tears. This isn’t going to look like you think it is going to.
I’m not sure how much Peter understood that day. My guess is that he got a little bit of what Jesus said, and as time passed, he kept going back and thinking about it and rolling it around in his head as he tried to make sense of it. I say this because I think Peter was normal and that’s how most of us grow, or to use Mark’s imagery; that’s how most of us see more clearly—a little at a time.
It didn’t follow the script that Peter wanted, life seldom does.
Jesus challenged Peter to “deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” I doubt this was Plan A on Peter’s agenda. The call to discipleship requires that we turn aside from our natural programming.
We all seem to be born with an innate sense to protect our own self-interests. I think this is normal.
But Jesus calls us to something different.
Our self-centeredness becomes an obstacle to caring for others and investing in a world beyond ourselves. While there are places in the world where commitment to Christ brings a risk of death, for us the cross is more symbolic.
Jesus calls us to something different. INstead of living a life that is only concerned about ourselves, he calls us to a life where we choose to invest in others.
For many of you, your service and ministry through St. James is a part of your commitment to Christ.
You continue choosing to make a difference here and in this community.
During this season of Lent, we are thinking about the way of the cross. The mood is somber as we reflect on Jesus’ death. The mood is serious as we reflect on our own commitment to follow Christ.
We are weary. We are weary of this pandemic. We are weary of not meeting together. This was certainly not Plan A, and I am pretty certain it was not even Plan B for many of us. Who could have ever imagined it?
The questions that we need to be praying together during this time are,
“How can we continue to lean in and trust God?” How can we continue to be faithful when Plan A is no more? How can we continue to be faithful when Plan B keeps changing daily?”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian said, “To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
May it be so for each of us. Amen.