notre dame montreal


Sermon for Lent 2

Lent 2 - Believing the Unbelievable

The Reverend Dr Sam Cappleman

In both the Old Testament and Gospel readings we see people who had very unexpected outcomes from those they were expecting.  It was a time when their faith and understanding would be severely stretched – they would be challenged to believe the seemingly unbelievable.

Because what God seemed to be saying was at odds with how they understood what was happening in their worlds

We don’t know quite how old Abram was in reality, he was certainly getting on a bit at the least, our reading puts him at 99 years old, Sarai ten years younger but still getting on in years.

Abram had already had a son, Ishmael, by Sarai’s servant, Hagar, and presumed that God’s covenant promise with him had been fulfilled.

But God, as the all sufficient one, appears to Abram and says this is not the case.  Abram, who he now calls Abraham, meaning father of a multitude, will have another son by his wife Sarai, who is now to be called Sarah, which is another variant on her name which means princess. 

Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into a name change in the same verses we read that through Sarah and Abraham God was starting a royal dynasty, ‘Kings of peoples shall come from her’.

Although it was only about four years earlier that Ishmael was born according to Genesis, Abraham was clearly surprised by this new turn of events.

It was quite an unexpected outcome and perhaps one that stretched and tested his faith.  Having a son seemed irreconcilable, incredible with his great age.  So much so that we read a little later in the passage that he fell on his face and laughed out loud.  What was being suggested was unthinkable.

His son Isaac, which comes from the root of the word ‘laugh’, was born about a year later!

In our gospel reading, which marks the middle of Mark’s gospel we read of a similar exchange which challenges and stretches Peters understanding and faith.

Shortly before Jesus asks the disciples who people think He is and then asks the disciples themselves the same question.  This results in Peter’s great declaration that, ‘You are the Christ, the Messiah’.

Up until this point in the gospel the secret Messiah has slowly been being revealed.

Now He’s out in the open things take a different turn.

But rather than speak of Messiahship in terms of victory and glory, Jesus speaks of it in terms of suffering and death.  This was irreconcilable with the concept of the Messiah which everyone had, it was simply unthinkable.

That’s why Peter takes Jesus aside and tells Him that He seems to be a bit ‘off message’ with His pronouncements.  Perhaps Peter saw his own world and ambitions crumbling before him and didn’t like the implications but it was certainly an unexpected turn of events.

In a few short words coming from God and His Son both Abram and Peter had their faith und understanding stretched.

Both had to come to terms with contradictory elements being reconciled.  For Abram it was his age and the fact that he would become a father of a multitude, starting with Isaac.  For Abram these contradictory elements were reconciled when Isaac was born. 

For Peter it was that it was the destiny of the Messiah to die.  For Peter and for the world the reconciliation was yet more profound.

For Jesus as the Messiah, whose destiny it was to die, the resolution between these seemingly irreconcilable facts would be seen in the resurrection.  Death and defeat was not the end, but life and victory.  Peter would come to believe the seemingly unbelievable. 

Just as it was for Abraham, God gives life where there appears to be none.


Throughout the bible God gives life so that His glory and plan are revealed.  The secret Messiah is secret no longer. 

Following the exchange with Peter Jesus then turns to the crowds and invites them to follow Him, but in a very different way to that which they might have expected.

The Rabbis would invite their followers to take up the yoke of the Torah, the yoke of the commandments.

Jesus invites His disciples to take up their cross.

For the Jews it was the Torah that defined them.  For Jesus’ followers it would be the cross.

And for Mark, as he writes of Jesus inviting His followers to take up the cross it wasn’t a metaphysical turn of phrase, not something that just had a symbolic meaning.  This was serious stuff.  He meant what he wrote.

Mark opens his gospel with the words, ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. Apart from anything else, this was a direct challenge to the Emperor’s claim to divinity.  For the Romans it was the emperor who had the claim to the title the Son of God.

For the Romans, the cross was the way they demonstrated their control.  Not only was it where criminals were put to death in a long, painful and lingering death, it was where insurgents and political activists like Barabbas were crucified.  (There is some thought that the two criminals who died alongside Jesus might have been Barabbas’ co-conspirators).

The Romans, and the Emperor might think they had power over life and death, and to a certain extent they did.  But it was God who is in ultimate control over eternal life and the overcoming of death.  The words that Jesus utters are another challenge to the Emperor’s authority and claim to divinity.

When Jesus invites His followers to take up their cross it’s not just an invitation to follow Him to a painful death, it’s an invitation to share in His eternal life and to believe and be part of the seemingly unbelievable and impossible. 

For Peter and Abraham their challenge in believing what was before them came from their blinkered, human view and focus on the immediate and the short term, what they could see immediately before them.  They had to see beyond this to the unimaginable and the possible.

God takes a somewhat longer view and has the whole picture in mind.  He invites us to do the same.

As we take up our crosses, Jesus invites us to lay before them the things that we see as unbelievable, the situations, relationships and differences that are so seemingly irreconcilable.

It might seem that situations are in the control of others, seemingly with great power like the Emperor, but in Christ that’s not true. 

We are not without the power and authority of God as we bring things to Him in prayer.  To ask what the world would see as the unthinkable and unbelievable.

As we see in Abraham and in Christ, God does act in unbelievable and incredible ways.  He did then and He still does.

God the creator and covenant keeper.  His words which were a challenge to Abraham were also words of life.

Jesus words to His disciples and to us were words indeed words of challenge, but they too are words of abundant and eternal life and glory.