(Preached at Alger First UMC on 3/1/2015)
Lent 2B: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
Ok, to start off, does anyone know what a covenant is? The basic definition of a covenant is a formal agreement between two or more people to do or not do something. In our culture, when we think of agreements between people it starts us thinking about contracts. Not necessarily formal, legal document, but agreements where people say “You do this and I’ll do that. But if you don’t do this, you break the contract and I don’t have to do that.”
For example, whenever you’re employed somewhere, you are in a contract agreement with them-You do the work that they hired you to do and they’ll pay you a certain amount of money. But if you stop coming into work, or you show up but you don’t do anything, they don’t have to pay you, they could fire you. On the other hand, if they don’t pay you, you don’t have to do the work they hired you to do, you could quit. If one side doesn’t do what they agreed to do, the contract is broken and the other side is released from the agreement.
But a covenant is different than that. If you are in a covenant agreement with someone, you’re saying that even if they break their side of the covenant, you’re still staying in this relationship and doing what you promised to do. Now, the last time I talked about covenants up here, I used the example of a marriage covenant and you all thought it was pretty funny that I was talking about marriage when Lauren wasn’t here. But that’s the perfect example of a covenant relationship. They are promising to stay faithful through the long haul, through whatever circumstances life throws at them, through all of the hard times and all of the good times.
This idea of covenant is a big part of what we’re talking about today. Covenant relationships are huge in Christianity. The Bible is divided into two big covenants-the Old Covenant, or the New Covenant. We call them Old and New Testaments, but covenant means kind of the same thing as Testament.
Now we heard about God making a covenant with humans last week when God made a covenant with Noah that he would never send a flood like that ever again. We heard about it again this week with our word from Genesis, where God makes his covenant with this guy named Abram. We know him as Abraham, but at first his name was Abram.
So like we said earlier, a covenant is, at its core, an agreement between two parties where they say “You do this, and I’ll do that.” So in this covenant that God is making with Abram, God’s saying “Abram, you do this and I will do that.”
Abram’s part in this can be seen in the very first verse. God says “I am God Almighty. Walk with me and be trustworthy.” Now that word, trustworthy, is the key word here. In the original Greek, the word used there was tamim (taw-meem’). It means complete or whole or full. So what God is meaning here is “I want not just your full commitment, I want your full, complete self. I want you to completely commit yourself to me and my ways and allow me to direct you. So that’s Abram’s part in this covenant-to give himself completely to God.
But God also has a part in this covenant. If we look a couple verses forward, God says “I will make you the father of many nations.” Now, how old was Abram? 99 years old, right? And we could probably assume his wife Sarai was around the same age, right? So they’re just a little past the childbearing age, right? And here comes this God, saying that they’re going to be the parents of whole nations. Crazy, right? But it gets better
The name Abram means “Blessed Father.” The Hebrew culture put a lot of emphasis on names and what they meant and how that meaning shaped the life of the person whose name it was. But this man named Blessed Father was not a father at all. He’d never had any kids. So I could imagine that his own name might have been a source of bitterness for him.
But God came to this man named Blessed Father who was not actually a father and through this covenant changed his name to Abraham, meaning Father of Many Nations, and allowed him to live into that name.
So that’s the covenant that Abram, now Abraham entered into with God. Abraham would follow God and give himself completely to God and God would make him the father of many nations.
Now, in our word from Paul’s letter to the Roman church, we heard Paul’s whole line of reasoning where he explained how this covenant with God is not just for the Jewish people but for everyone. Now, it takes a while to really understand what Paul is saying in any of his letters, but the gist of this passage is that God set up this covenant with Abraham through God’s promise. It wasn’t because of anything that Abraham did or said. It wasn’t because Abraham was a super-righteous person. Abraham probably believed in the gods of the area he lived in, not Yahweh, so it wasn’t because Abraham already believed in this God. This covenant only happened through God’s promise, through God’s action. So what it means is that this covenant is for us as well. If we follow God and commit our whole Selves to God’s direction, God will transform us into something far greater than anything we could ever imagine.
Now, three things, we have to remember about this covenant making. First, God always keeps his end of the covenant. Remember, the covenant relationship is not broken if one side does not hold up their end of the covenant. So we don’t ever have to worry about God being the one not holding up his end of the covenant.
But as we remember that, we remember the second thing: we do not keep our end of the covenant. That much should be pretty self-explanatory-we do not always follow God, we do not always commit our whole selves to God. Am I right? Or is this just true for me, maybe you all have this figured out? But, in thinking of this, we also have to remember the third thing-God always gives us grace to fulfill our side of the covenant. God never stops giving us grace, and it is only through this grace that we are able to return to God, to follow God, and to commit our lives to God.
Now, in our passage from Mark, Jesus details how we can keep our side of the covenant, now that we have been empowered by the grace of God. I’m going to read it for you in a second, but let me set the stage for it. Jesus has just been traveling around the area, teaching and performing miracles, the most recent of which was giving sight to a blind man. After the disciples have seen all of this, Jesus asks them “Who do you think that I am?” Basically, what do you think about me now that you’ve seen me do and say all of these things? And Peter, in one of his awesome super-honest moments, says “You’re the Christ!” Now, when we first read that, we think that this is great, the disciples are finally cluing in. But I read it a little differently. I read it as Peter saying you are the Christ or the Messiah and meaning that Christ is the Messiah or Savior that all the Jewish people would be expecting-someone to kick out the Romans who were occupying Israel and someone who would bring back the Golden Age of Israel, when they had a Jewish king on the throne and they were a major world power and everyone feared their army. That’s the kind of Messiah that everyone, including Peter and the rest of the disciples, wanted and I think that’s what Peter meant when he said that Jesus was the Messiah, and I think Jesus heard that and saw that his disciples didn’t really get it. So he does this.
(Read Mark 8:31-38)
So Jesus is trying to get his disciples to understand that he is not some glorious military leader, that’s not how he’s going to save Israel. So he tells them that he’s going to suffer, be rejected, and die, but rise again after three days. Mark says that Jesus spoke plainly about this, so it’s kind of like he was taking his disciples by the shoulders and saying “I’M GOING TO DIE.” That’s why Jesus came, not to start a military revolution and become the ruler of the new Israel, but to suffer and die.
But the problem that Peter sees with all of this is that if Jesus was actually going to start this military revolution and become ruler of the New Israel, then there was a chance that Peter would get some of that glory and fame. But now that Jesus reveals that his mission is actually not to kick the Romans out but to suffer and die for the people’s sins, Peter sees this fame slipping through his fingers. So he takes Jesus aside and tells him to stop speaking about these things, it doesn’t have to be true, you don’t have to suffer, you don’t have to die.
So now this is all out in the open. Jesus sees that the disciples don’t get it, and they’re probably not the only ones. To return to the language of covenant I was using earlier, the disciples had a wrong understanding of this covenant. Do you remember what the covenant was that I talked about earlier? We follow God and commit our whole selves to God, and God will transform us into something far greater than we could ever imagine. But the people had a wrong understanding of this, they saw it as more of a one-way agreement-“What can I get from God, what can God do for me?”
So Jesus hears all of this and he sees he has to correct this because they have got to understand this. So he starts this famous teaching on what discipleship really means, what it really means to keep our side of the covenant. It’s all centered around two important phrases-Deny yourself and pick up your cross and follow me.
Now, our understanding of what it really means to deny yourself has changed a bit. A lot of times, we think that denying yourself means to practice self-denial, which is what we’re doing if we’re fasting or giving something up for Lent, we are practicing self-denial. Now, self-denial is good and useful and everything, but it’s not what Jesus is talking about here. In the original Greek that Mark used, the word here that we translate as “deny yourself” is the same word that Jesus used when he predicted that Peter would deny Jesus three times after Jesus was arrested. When Peter denied Jesus, he was trying to save his own skin by saying that he had no idea who Jesus was. So what Jesus is saying here is that that has to be our attitude toward ourselves. Jesus is telling us to completely give up ownership of our lives, give up the direction of where our life is going, give up our plans and the dreams of our futures and surrender it all to Christ. Jesus is telling us to completely give up our old self to the point where we can say “I don’t know the old Me, I don’t know that person.”
So Jesus goes on to say that if we are going to follow him, we have to also pick up our crosses. This is kind of a common phrase now, but I think our understanding of it has changed. A lot of times, we might think of it as meaning take up your burden and bear it, suffer through it. But that’s not exactly what it means. See, when we picture a cross, we picture it as a symbol of redemption and hope and salvation, right? But when Jesus said these words, the cross was a symbol of a horrific torture and execution. It was what the Romans used to execute criminals, and they were not afraid at all to use it, everyone would have been used to seeing people hanging on a cross, slowly and painfully dying. There was absolutely no hope in a cross when Jesus said these words, there only pain and fear. It’d be kind of like having an electric chair or a hangman’s noose or a table where they do lethal injections standing behind me instead of this cross.
So what Jesus was really saying here was “Take up your cross beam.” When someone would go to be executed on a cross, the Romans would make them take the cross beam, where their arms would be nailed, they would make them carry that all the way out to where they would be executed. So after a criminal was beaten and whipped, they would have been made to carry this huge, heavy piece of wood a couple miles out of town where they would then be nailed to that piece of wood and be executed. That’s what Jesus is telling us to do here.
So today, as we are journeying to the cross, we learn here what it really means to be a disciple. We are in a covenant relationship with Jesus Christ. We give up ownership of ourselves and the direction of our lives and surrender all of that to Jesus, and God will make us new, God will transform us into something we can’t begin to imagine. We will be whole, complete, we will be living the life that God created us to live. This is not just a one-way agreement where we try to see what we can get out of God. As a disciple of Jesus Christ, there are expectations. We must pick up our cross beam, we must be willing to suffer and die with this Jesus. We must lose all sense of ownership of ourselves, to the point where we don’t care if people identify us with the lowest of the low, if people hate us or make fun of us. We must die to ourselves, we must daily, hourly, minute-by-minute pick up our cross beam and walk with it, following Jesus to Golgotha, where our Self will die. But we remember that in Christianity, death is never the end. It is only the beginning. Because Jesus Himself knew that he was going to suffer and die, but he was going to rise again. Through this covenant, we will be made new, we will be made whole, we will become completely new creatures. All through the grace of God, the same grace that picks us up when we fall, when we fail, when we mess up, when we doubt, when we run away from this suffering and dying, this same grace calls and beckons us back and gives us the strength to pick up that cross beam and carry on, following Jesus to death and into life.