2nd Sunday in Lent
Texts: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16;
Mark 8:31-38; Romans 4:13-25
COVENANT: GOD’S COMMITMENT TO CONVERSATION
Why do we get married? For love? Yes, that’s the main reason we get married in the modern era. But it wasn’t always that way. It used to be tied up with the politics of bringing two families together, creating a new alliance through a new joined-together family; that’s why marriages were always arranged by parents.
I’d like to suggest another good reason for marriage, and it has to do with our theme for Lent: Covenant. We belong to a Covenant God, who calls us to live in Covenant with each other, as well — covenants such as marriage. What happens when you are fortunate to live with someone for years that stretch into decades? You share everything together. And if it is a good marriage founded on trust and love, that everything can range from the most ordinary of life-sustaining activities down to the most intimate details of innermost thoughts and feelings. Two lives in loving conversation for years can bring the most treasured kind of knowledge, the knowledge of what it means to be human. I suggest that an excellent reason for getting married is to grow in understanding what it means to be human.
I think that this works a bit like learning a second language. As you learn about another language, it helps you learn both your own language better and also what it means to speak a language in general. Two lives in conversation over many years helps in a similar way. In getting to know Ellen I learn both to understand myself better and to know what it means to be human. This is a never-ending process, of course, filled with trial and error. You know how it goes. Just when you think you have a loved one figured out, they surprise you again. And forgiveness may be in order. You can’t proceed in this journey of finding out what it means to be human with out love and forgiveness.
And that’s why God is a Covenant God, to undergird all our human covenants with the love and forgiveness we need. From the beginning, God offered human beings a Covenant life as a foundation for our living together in peace. But from the beginning we blew it. We thought we could know these things on our own. The serpent said we could know good and evil if we ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. Paradise was lost.
So God started anew somewhere with someone. God chose Abraham and Sarah to make a Covenant anew. And it is this covenant that is the foundation for all others. It is in choosing Abraham and Sarah and their descendants that God seeks to have a conversation over the years that not only stretches into decades but into centuries. In this ongoing conversation with the descendants of Abraham and Sarah — and perhaps we should add Abraham and Hagar for our Muslim brothers and sisters — it is in this ongoing conversation that God of centuries that God helps to get to know better both ourselves and what it means to be human. Finally, it is a descendant of Abraham and Sarah, Jesus of Nazareth, in whom we are able to see fully and completely both God and ourselves. We learn what it means to be God and what it means to be human. Centuries it has taken, and I’m not sure we know yet!! And there has been much trial and error, just like with our own covenant relationships. In Christ Jesus, there is no error. Only pure truth of both divinity and humanity. But on our side of the covenant, of course, there is still trial and error. The conversation continues. We are still learning what it means to be human, even as we learn who God truly is.
Let me give you an example of this trial and error over the centuries. In our second lesson today, Paul says, “For the law brings wrath.” That’s like me saying, “The Christian religion brings wrath.” We gasp! The Law, Torah in the Hebrew, was their religion. For Paul to say that it brings wrath might have been scandalous to some extent. But they might have known what Paul was saying because of their ideas of God bringing wrath upon God’s enemies. But it was God who brings the wrath, wasn’t it? Not the Torah. The Torah simply tells us about God’s wrath. But there’s a bible study I do — I don’t have time to do it right now — that shows how Paul is trying to help his readers understand that God isn’t wrath. In Jesus Christ we see that God is love and mercy and forgiveness and that we are the wrath. The Torah, our religion, in our sinful hands, brings wrath, not God. In Jesus Christ, the centuries-long conversation has finally prepared us to see and hear that God is love and we are wrath. We project our wrath onto God, but that’s not who God is.
Our Gospel gives another example. A few verses earlier, Peter has gotten it right by proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. But in this morning’s story he also shows himself to be wrong, the trial and error I’m talking about. He assumes that the Messiah, as God’s servant, is here to bring God’s wrath down upon God’s enemies. He assumes that the Messiah is here to kick butt. But Jesus goes on to say how the wrath of the Romans will come down upon him and he will be crucified. To a Jew like Peter, that’s like saying the Roman gods are going to kick the butt of their Jewish God. That can’t happen if he is truly God’s Messiah. Peter thinks he knows who God is, but the conversation will prove him wrong. In Jesus the Messiah, we find out that God is love, period!, and not wrath. God takes our wrath upon himself in Jesus on Good Friday and turns it into love and forgiveness on Easter. That’s why Good Friday is Good. Not because of our wrath, but because God’s powerful love is strong enough to turn wrath into love and new life.
It’s now twenty centuries later. Have we learned yet? Or is it as we talked about two weeks ago: we have ears that don’t hear and eyes that don’t see. God is holding up God’s end of the conversation, but we continue to fail. I said a moment ago that Paul saying that the Torah bring wrath is like me saying that the Christian religion brings wrath. Well, let me say it: “The Christian religion, for way too many centuries, has brought wrath.” In our sinful hands, we have turned the Good News in Jesus the Messiah — that God is love and we are wrath, but that wrath can be forgiven — we have turned it into the bad news that God has a wrath that punishes unbelievers in hell for eternity.
I’ve been privileged to read the manuscript of Brian McLaren’s next book. It is about being Christian in a multi-faith world. He presents the dilemma that to have a strong Christian identity over recent centuries has meant being hostile to people of other religions. We are hostile by bringing that message of God’s wrath for eternal damnation. To be friendly and hospitable to people of other faiths has seemingly meant weakening one’s Christian identity. McLaren asks, ‘But what if we have been wrong about our Christian identity? Shouldn’t there be a Christian identity that’s hospitable, not hostile, to people of other faiths?’ I am saying to you this morning that, yes, there should be a Christian identity that is hospitable to all people. It’s the identity that Christ came to show us, in other words, of who God is and who we truly can be. For we can be love, too. We have been wrath, killing one another and breaking apart relationships, but we can be about love. God’s forgiveness can help us turn the corner.
What about all those passages that seem to say that God is wrath? you say. Well, we can chalk that up at least partially to our deafness and blindness when it comes to our centuries long conversation with God. But part of it, too, is not hearing what may sound like wrath from God, but is actually God’s love in pain, watching us kill each other in wrath. Love doesn’t mean all is well in the world. No, love gives choices, and we continue to choose the darkness of wrath turned to estrangement and death. We can’t go into that whole long story yet this morning.
So let me end with this question and answer: If we human beings have this habit of projecting our wrath onto our gods, then how can the true God of love ever get through to us? How can our deafness and blindness ever be healed? The answer: Covenant. It takes God’s commitment to have a conversation with us over centuries that we might finally hear and understand who God is and who we are created to be. It took God starting somewhere with someone, Abraham and Sarah. And even with much trial and error among their descendants, the conversation finally became flesh in Jesus Christ, so that we can see that God is love and that we are created to be love.
Christ’s followers have also endured many centuries of trial and error in this conversation, this Covenant. But, again as always, God starts somewhere with someone. Could that someone be you and me? Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, March 4, 2012