Second Sunday in Lent
By Rev Dr Sam Cappleman
Our Covenant Relationship with God
Things are not always what we assume! Some of us were at Putnoe last night watching a man, who initially appeared in a very respectable suit; turn himself over the course of an evening into a pantomime dame. He was a professional actor and as we went through the evening he talked us through how he transforms himself from the man who enters the theatre into the dame that appears on stage, usually in the fist act as we were to find out.
For the early Christians in Mark’s gospel things too were not as they assumed. They had assumed that the Messiah would come and smash the Roman occupation and rule and establish the Jewish nation. Just before the gospel passage we had read for us this morning Peter has just declared that Jesus is the Messiah, the penny has dropped, the disciples realise who Jesus is.
But rather than crush the mighty Roman occupation Jesus immediately takes their breath away by saying that Messiah will die a painful death and be rejected by the Jewish authorities.
This is not what they had assumed would happen. This is not what they had read into the law.
Paul takes the Jewish and Gentile believers who he is writing to in Romans back to the Old Testament covenants to explain what is happening and helps us understand why the Messiah had to suffer in the way he did.
In the Old Testament there are multiple covenants, each one building on the previous one. A few weeks ago we heard about God’s covenant with Noah and with creation, promising that He would never again destroy the earth
This week in the reading from Genesis we hear about the next covenant, the covenant with Abraham where God declares He will make him father of many nations, not just one but many. Not all creation but many nations.
The next covenant will be with Moses where he is given the 10 commandments and is focuses on the law for the Jewish people. Ultimately will be the covenant with David where God says that His line will be established forever.
So the covenants get increasingly focused on Jesus who is of the line of David and fulfils all of the Old Testament covenants.
But even though all of the Covenants could be broken by disobedience, God would defend them, especially against those who sought to set themselves against them, such as Pharaoh or may be others much later in history who sought to destroy the Jewish race.
The law is important because it comes out of a reflection of God’s nature, it’s a verbal statement of what God is like and by following it people are able to reflect more of God’s divine nature. It’s not so much a standard to attain but given so people could live the life God intended. It was to assist them, not straitjacket them.
To make this point Paul draws on the example of Abraham, father of the Jewish nation. Abraham lived before the law was given. For him righteousness came by faith, not by the law. For him, it couldn’t come from the law because the law had not yet been given.
For Paul it’s that same faith that enables all people to enter into a relationship with God, nothing to do with the law at all. Paul even says that if those who live by the law can inherit the Kingdom of God then faith has no value.
At the heart of a relationship with God is faith, not adherence to the law, just as Abraham has demonstrated.
At the heart of all the Old Testament covenant faith relationships with God was sacrifice and obedience (latterly to the law). The purpose of obedience (to the law) was to make people holy, to better reflect the image of God.
For Christians the sacrifice has been made through Christ on the cross and slavish adherence to the law has been transformed through the grace of God into obedience to Him through faith. And as we obey the precepts of Christ, so we become more holy and better reflect the image of God
Paul is saying that the roots of our faith go back beyond the law, back to the faith in God that was demonstrated by Abraham and our forefathers. Back to our own personal faith.
Jesus emphasises this point when he calls the disciples, and all who would follow Him, to take up their own crosses. And taking up our own cross involves both a particular decision point at a particular point in time where we acknowledge who Jesus the Messiah is and submit our lives to His ways. But taking up our cross also involves an ongoing decision to continually align our lives to God’s ways day by day. During Lent when we reflect on our spiritual lives we have an opportunity to consciously take up our cross and to open ourselves to the change and development which God desires in our lives, and often the change and development we desire too.
For the Jews, and for ourselves, relationships with God are not what we sometimes assume or expect, God can and does do the unexpected. Relationships that as we can see from the example of Abraham and Sarah, that can be redeemed, even in hopeless situations.
For Abraham to have a child seemed hopeless. He was old and Sarah was past what would normally be expected to be childbearing age.
For the Jews, they ha been disobedient to the call of God, they were in a hopeless situation. For ourselves, without hope with out the intervention of Christ we were lost and hopeless. But through the events of Easter we are given hope, whatever our circumstances, however hopeless our situation feels
Our God is a God who redeems hopeless situations. Our role is to be faithful to Him. Not trying too hard to adhere to a set of principle like the Jews, not trying in our own strength to be worthy of God but expressing our relationship with God through our sometimes faltering faith, and leaving the rest up to God.
Sometimes in Lent we get the impression that we can grow closer to God through our own endeavours, through what we give up or what we take on. The model of Abraham, which expresses a relationship with God through faith alone, is what Paul exhorts the Jews and all Christians to enjoy, not through their own endeavours but accepting and looking forward with expectation to that which God has in store for them.
Lent is a time to explore our relationship with God. But it’s also a time to relax in Him, secure in or faith and to let God reveal the unexpected to us.
Jesus exhorts us to take up our cross, not just in a self sacrificial way, but to discover how God wants to relate to each one of us so that we can know Him better through our ever deepening faith.