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Little Malvern Priory
SERMON FOR SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT. 25th FEBRUARY 2024.
Readings: Genesis 17: 1-7 and 15-16; Mark 8: 31-end
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Today’s reading gives us some challenging words. We hear hard talk from Jesus about what is to happen to him as he and his disciples begin to make their way to Jerusalem. They didn’t really understand what he was saying to them, and they didn’t grasp what the consequences of what he said might be for them. Perhaps they chose to block out what all this entailed, because it didn’t fit in to their idea of Jesus the Messiah, and what it meant to be his follower.
But let’s go back first to the Old Testament reading. The passage begins with Abram, at 99 years old, receiving a vision from God. We shouldn’t worry too much about the thought of Abram being 99; calculations of age in Genesis are very different from our own; we heard in a reading recently that Noah became a father at 500 years old. Make of that what you will!
Previously, when Abram was 75 years old — more understandable — God directed him to set out and settle in a new land. He promised to make him and his descendants great. But Abram and Sarai had been unable to have children. So, with Sarai’s agreement, Abram produced a child through his slave-girl Hagar. It seems that being a surrogate mother is nothing new! The child was named Ishmael, and Abram imagined that the Lord’s promises would be fulfilled through Ishmael. But Now the Lord confirms the promise to Abram and rewards him for his faithfulness in setting out to a new life in response to God’s command. He promises to make a covenant with him, and to make his descendants exceedingly numerous. Moreover, Abram is going to have a child through his wife Sarai.
Abram had been ready to settle for blessing through Ishmael, but God had planned something better. Ishmael would indeed be blessed, but there will be still more blessing through Abram and Sarai’s own child — Isaac. He will be the one with whom the covenant is established.
These goings-on might seem slightly strange to us, but maybe there is a message. When we are under pressure and growing weary, it is easy to settle for what we have got rather than remain open to God’s promise of even more blessing in the future. Mercifully, God does not give up. So we can pray to be renewed by God’s grace and sustained by God’s power in our time of weakness.
Abraham and Peter offer an interesting contrast in their attitudes. Abraham believed God’s promises, even if the icing on the cake was a long time coming. When God told him about the covenant and the blessing, he fell on his face in reverent submission. Peter, on the other hand, found it very hard to hear Jesus talk about his future suffering and death. In the verses preceding our passage today, Peter had had the insight to be able to say to Jesus, ‘You are the Messiah.’ But what Jesus then said about his coming passion didn’t fit in with Peter’s idea of Messiahship. So Peter rebuked him, prompting Jesus to utter those words which have almost become common usage “Get behind me, Satan”; adding “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Example and warning keep us on the Lenten path.
How often we dismiss or challenge something awkward someone has said, though we know there is truth in it, because we recognise it will have uncomfortable repercussions for us.
‘Taking up the cross’ is another expression that has passed into common usage. If you’ve got a miserable boss at work, you might say “That’s a cross I have to bear.” But, of course, Jesus wasn’t just using a metaphor, and it’s easy to trivialise what he is saying. In Roman practice, the condemned man had to carry the cross beam to the place of execution. Imagine the horror of that.
But what about Jesus’ instruction that his would-be followers must ‘deny themselves’ — and that those who lose their life — for the sake of the gospel - will save it? Pie in the sky when you die? It’s about more than that. We may be spared martyrdom, but the instruction to deny ourselves is still there.
Discipline is one of the themes of Lent. And there seems to be a connection between ‘discipline’ and ‘disciple’. The disciple trains himself or herself to follow the leader and the leader’s wishes. But discipline need not be a negative thing. Discipline is essential if you are to progress in your chosen activity — playing an instrument, or preparing to run a marathon, for instance. If we don’t keep at it we may even lose the ability we once had. So, as many a parent has told many a child, practice at something means denying ourselves the pleasure of going out and doing something enjoyable whenever we want to. In the same way, in spiritual terms, there can be no discipling without discipline.
And some things are lost by being kept to ourselves. So Jesus says that those who want to save their life will lose it. Sometimes we have to die to live. Which in a way brings us back to Abraham. It was easy to settle for the surrogate son than really believe God had a greater blessing through the son he was to have with his wife. So where does all this lead us in our lives of faith — this talk about taking up the cross, and losing our lives in order to save them?
Brother Andrew, of the SDC, said “We must make our souls a fit place for God’s presence. We are given light, and we must walk as children of light. Light is given to us not to save us trouble, but to enable us to take more trouble; not to save us thought, but to enable us to think more truly, more deeply.”
And Judith Dimond imagines this conversation on the Day of Judgment.
“Where is your soul?” God asks.
“I lost it” you say.
“But where did you leave it?” he asks.
“I hid it in a box labelled Mine. I thought that way I’d keep it safe”, you reply. “Please can I buy it back?”
“But where is the key?” God asks.
“I buried it deep so that no-one else could find it, and it has rusted”, you reply. “Please can I buy a new one?”
“But there is no currency here in heaven”, God replies. “You should have spent the gold of love and the silver of self-sacrifice when you could. You should never have locked up your soul. You should have known the price of selfishness. Did you not take notice of my Son? He spoke plainly enough about this!”