How not to save your life
A sermon preached by the Rev. Beth Maynard on the Second Sunday in Lent
Our first two lessons today may come off as a little more flattering to Abraham than he deserves. In Genesis, we heard the story of how God made a covenant with him. It’s quite a significant covenant, because the promises that come with it are huge. Abraham and Sarah are to be the ancestors of a multitude of nations, Sarah is to bear a son who will be the special carrier of this calling, and God commits to be the God of anyone who’s in this son’s bloodline forever and ever. Big stuff.
Then in Romans, we heard the Apostle Paul reflecting on that very same passage, saying that “Abraham believed … according to what was said… He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise… he grew strong in his faith… being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
Now, this is indeed true as a general description of the overall posture that Abraham eventually found himself in. Yes, he did persevere through ups and downs, yes, he did take actions that indicated deep trust in God. But what actually happens in the very next verse after today’s Genesis reading, is that Abraham bursts out laughing at how ridiculous, how impossible God’s word to him is. Our lesson ends with verse 16, and here is verse 17: Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”
Whether those are approximate round numbers or accurate ones, Abraham and Sarah are both well past the season of childbearing, and we learned earlier that Sarah couldn’t have children even when she was of an age to. The odds against this promise from God actually happening are overwhelming. In fact, after Abraham gets done laughing at God in verse 17, he suggests in verse 18 that perhaps God was thinking of his stepson who had already been born, that maybe that son, Ishmael, could carry this calling instead of some hypothetical new son Sarah is allegedly supposed to bear at age 90.
And God, ever the master of understatement, just says “No. But your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac, and I will establish my covenant with him.” In the next chapter he reiterates the promise again to both Abraham and Sarah as a couple, and this time it is Sarah who laughs. And who can blame her? None of this is the way any of us think.
God is making the entire future of his Chosen People, and through them the entire future of Judaism itself, all the prophets and the Law and everything -- and through Judaism the entire future of Christianity, Jesus and Mary and the early church and the saints and the sacraments and thus your future and my future – God is making all that dependent on something that originates in the complete incapability of the people involved to do it.
Why put his whole covenant, something so central to his vision for the universe, at this kind of risk before it even starts? Why not call people who are young and healthy and reliable and strong and competent? None of this is the way any of us think. Why would God do it like that?
Now this is essentially the same question Peter asks Jesus in today’s Gospel. Well, he doesn’t frame it as a question, and unlike Abraham he doesn’t laugh; he just informs Jesus in no uncertain terms that he’s wrong. Mark tells us that “Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
And how does Peter react? It says “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” Again – it’s the most natural possible human reaction. Why would God do it this way? This is ridiculous. Jesus “must” be killed? But he’s supposed to reign forever! He’s supposed to save his people! Getting killed is a very poor strategy. Who would make their plan originate in that kind of complete incapability, that kind of public failure? None of this is the way any of us think.
And yet Jesus says it is the only way. He must enter into that same utter powerlessness that faced Abraham and Sarah. He must undergo suffering, he must be rejected, he must be killed. He must go to the Cross as a condemned criminal amidst public shame. This is the plan. Jesus is committed to it, convinced that God’s salvation absolutely has to start there, in the middle of impossibility and helplessness.
Peter, like Abraham, can’t see any way this strategy is going to work. And who can blame him? None of this is the way any of us think. And Jesus basically says that to Peter. After Peter tells him off, Jesus diagnoses Peter’s problem like this: “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." You don’t get it, Peter, because you are thinking the way people normally think. There’s another way to approach the universe, and although it’s completely counterintuitive, it has behind it the power of God and the wisdom of God.
And then Jesus explains. “For 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 save it.” Once again: this is just not how your average person views things. “Those who want to save their life will lose it?” What most normal people do all day is predicated on the belief that Jesus is wrong about that and that the self-evidently best course of action is to take charge of saving our lives.
What we do all day is whatever’s necessary to keep all the balls in the air, to succeed, to find fulfillment, to provide for ourselves, to follow what we think is the safe path -- or the intelligent one, or the fun one, or the prosperous one, or the religious one, or whatever, depending on which version of saving our life we’ve bet on. But at any rate, we all more or less share the assumption that our goal is not to end up in a position like Abraham and Sarah or a position like Jesus. Not to get into situations where we discover that we are completely unable to help ourselves. Not to have to experience ourselves as weak and powerless. Most of us more or less agree on that.
And that’s why most of us are not the ancestor of a multitude of nations, or even especially consistent disciples of Jesus. Because -- forget being a hero of faith -- just being someone who lives by faith at all starts, ground zero, with the realization that you are in a situation where you are powerless. A situation in which whatever version of saving your life you’ve bet on can’t actually help you. This situation is called life. We all carry a stain we ourselves can’t erase. We all carry wounds we ourselves can’t heal. We all are facing death, just some of us sooner than others, and we ourselves can’t win that face-off.
But if these lectionary stories today, and so many other stories from Scripture and the Fathers and the lives of the saints (and I’m sure the lives of people sitting in this building), if these stories can be trusted, being in that position is the same as being in the position where God does his greatest works. If we will only see that’s where we are, and admit it.
Human weakness is the point at which God begins saving the world; just look at the Cross. Human powerlessness is the point at which God begins unfolding his transformative plan; just look at Abraham and Sarah. Death of the illusion that whatever way of saving your life you’ve bet on can work; that’s where God’s life begins and grace comes in like a flood.
It’s Lent; if we can’t say these things in Lent, when can we? I drift back all the time into the illusion that my best option is to save my own life. I drift back all the time into betting that something else, other than God, will work, prioritizing the kinds of failsafes and strategies that God seems to have been at pains to rule out at all his most crucial turning points. I think most of you probably do, too.
But I also have proven to myself over and over, if I can just pay attention, that there’s another way to live, and although it’s completely counterintuitive, it has behind it the power of God and the wisdom of God. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That’s the truth -- and if we can’t tell the truth in Lent, when can we?
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