Forsaken Yet Promised
| Genesis 17:1-16
|Sun, March 16, 2003
Rev. Ed Searcy
|The story is at a dead end. Abram and Sarai are centenarians and still no child, no future, no next generation. Remember, the story that sustains the entire Bible hangs by a thread here, here at the dead end of Abram and Sarai’s life. Their future is barren. They have been forsaken, left without, abandoned to their fate. God’s promise that they will mother and father a blessed people in whom “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:4) must surely be an empty one. We jump quickly to infant Isaac that we know to be coming soon. But the story does not permit a rush to the birth and to a new future. The story lingers in the time of barrenness and forsakenness. Abram and Sarai wait into their frail final years without anything but the promises. This is all they have. YHWH keeps making promises, promises that have yet to arrive in the delivery of a child, a future and a blessing.
Here, in this morning’s text, is yet another promise given in new names. Abram is to be called Abraham. Sarai is now Sarah. New names given because of the new thing that is sure to happen. Notice that the new names are given before the new thing is done. We make name changes after the marriage is consummated. We add titles after the degree is granted. But here the new name is given before the changed future has occurred. Last week, after the baptism class had concluded, one of the participants asked “I keep wondering about the leap of faith that is involved in all of this. I am struggling to trust in God. When does that happen? Before the baptism? After the baptism? Or is the baptism itself the leap of faith to trust in God?” Opening the Bible we discover that God leaps in faith to change the names of Abraham and Sarah before a new future is delivered them. We suppose that Abe and Sarah are paragons of virtue, “walking blamelessly” (Gen. 17:1), trusting implicitly, having lept out in faith long before. Except that in the next verse, the verse not included by the lectionary today, we discover that in response to YHWH’s confident promise “Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah who is ninety years old bear a child?’” Later Sarah also laughs at the hilarious promise of an impossible future. The bold promises of YHWH seem to this world-weary couple to be only the unfilfulled visions of a younger day. They know better now. They know to laugh when promised a future beyond their wildest conceiving.
Notice that Peter, on the other hand, does no laughing when promised a future beyond his wildest conceiving. No. Peter flat out rejects the future that Jesus announces. It happens just as the future looks promising, just as Peter glimpses that Jesus is more than a rabbi, more than a prophet, is in truth the Messiah, the King, the long promised Christ. Just then Jesus begins to announce a future that is filled with trouble, with rejection, with death, with new life on the other side of the end. The sunny promises of a new time under a new Messiah suddenly give way to a clouded journey towards forsakenness and a dead end. Peter doesn’t laugh. He rebukes. He rebukes Jesus in the name of all churches everywhere that know this is not the way to build a successful church. But in Peter’s rebuke Jesus hears the satanic voice of the Tempter, subtly persuading the church in every age that following Jesus does not require it to die to control and safety and ease. Now Jesus rebukes Peter - Jesus yells at Peter - and at all who are whispering encouragement in Peter’s ear. To Peter and his kin Jesus says: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will find it.” Peter wants a future without loss. Peter wants the promise of having and controlling. But Jesus promises a new future that leads through loss. Jesus promises a life-giving future that arrives through letting go. Jesus promises a joyful future that comes through shouldering a share of his cross.
It is all about the future. Sarah and Abraham can’t imagine that it will be blessed. Peter and the disciples can’t imagine that it will be hard. The promise is, somehow, both. The covenant with YHWH is the promise of a blessing, a blessing not only of Sarah and Abraham’s lineage but, finally, of all the nations in all the earth. And this covenant with Abraham and Sarah - this ancient deep promise of God - is kept in the infant Jesus whose life is broken in blessing and whose blood is poured out in forgiveness for the world. But the blessing does not come without sacrifice. It is not the result of magic. God’s blessing comes through the One who bears the suffering that curses the earth. And the disciples of Jesus are caught up in the mystery of the ancient covenant promise coming true. We struggle with the dawning realization that becoming a part of God’s promised blessing to the world is our vocation, our calling, our life. This requires letting go of other callings, other journeys, other ways. Being caught up in the story of Jesus results in losing a life that could have been, that might have been. Being one of Jesus’ band leads to a different life story. It is this different life that we ponder and enter here. We wonder just how different Jesus intends our life together to be. We struggle to sort out how our overcrowded days and habitual routines are to be different, different because we trust Jesus’ promised future with our life.
Peter’s struggle with Jesus suggests that our difficulty is not a new thing. Peter is the “bedrock” on which Jesus builds the church. Peter is the first Pope, the model disciple, the head of his confirmation class. And Peter struggles mightily with the cross-walk that Jesus takes us on. Do you see? The first sign of a faithful community of disciples is this - that Peter’s struggle is alive and well because it is wrestling with Jesus, rebuking and being rebuked by him. A denomination or a congregation or a discipled life that is struggling with the call to die to its former glory and to its dreams of glory is already on the way of Christ. There is no short cut to Easter. The way of Jesus leads right through Peter’s rebuke of Good Friday. Peter discovers that he cannot follow unless he dies to his assumptions about Jesus and about the future. With him we are learning that God’s promised future will not come without giving up other futures. This act of letting go is the great leap of faith that we join when we are baptised into Jesus’ body. Together we are submerged in the water, dying to control over the future. Together we come up out of the water, renamed by the promise of the future.
That is the interesting thing about Peter. He already has his new name. You remember. When he meets Jesus he is named Simon. But Jesus gives him a new name - Peter. It means ‘rock’ or ‘chip’ as in ‘a chip off the old block’. Jesus gives Simon his ‘Christian name’ at the beginning of his leap of faith, not upon his landing. Simon becomes Peter before he rebukes Jesus and before he denies Jesus. Peter’s resistance to Jesus’ way and Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus at the end is not the end. It is the very journey of dying and of losing that Jesus promises and predicts.
Here is the deep hope that keeps the church from despair. We recognize much in our life that Christ calls us to let go. We know that we are tempted to place our trust in other powers and in the promises of idols. We do not leap in faith with ease. When faced with a barren future we join Sarah and Abraham in laughing at God’s hilarious hope. When we have the future well mapped we join Peter and rebuke Jesus for mapping out a way that leads to the cross. It is enough to cause us to give up ... to give up on the church, to give up on ourselves, to give up on God. But then we notice that this odd story tells us how it is with God. First the promise of a new future reaches back into the present and calls out a community that dares to trust this new hope. That trust includes Abraham and Sarah’s bold laughter. That faith includes Peter’s daring rebuke. And neither the laughter nor the rebuke puts an end to the promise. The promise of God in Christ works its ways of newness on Abraham and Sarah, even in their cynical old age. The promise of God in Christ works its ways of newness on Peter, even in his determination to resist. This is how it is with us. Beyond our disbelief and beyond our inability to believe God is already at work making new ... making the world new, making the church new, making you new. Some churches, some disciples can imagine nothing but a barren, forsaken future. Other churches, other disciples fill their future to the brim with glorified plans of every sort. Thank God that Jesus’ promised future comes at the expense of the failed futures and of the succesful futures that we plan. Hallelujah. Amen.