Second Sunday in Lent, February 28th, 2021

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The second Sunday of Lent in our Symphony of Scripture series. Our lessons are…

The covenant with Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 17

Paul’s reflections on Abraham in Romans 4

9 verses of Psalm 22

The open announcement of Jesus in Mark 8 of his intention to go to Jerusalem

The metaphor of a symphony commends itself because it describes so well the character of scripture in its parts and as a whole. The Holy Spirit’s conductors baton signalling this instrument, dampening that, calling for more from the seemingly incidental oboe or French horn. Bringing into concert. The waters of creation and the waters of the Jordan. The resolute watching and following of Elisha and the Lord’s seeking to make Peter into the same. The ark and baptism. The immediately of Nineveh and of Galilee. John the Baptist and Elijah. Wilderness tempting at Sinai and at the Jordan. Promised wolf lying down with lamb, Jesus with the beasts.

Old and New. Former and Latter. Elder and younger. The lessons move like a weaver’s shuttle. Not a single direction but, as in a symphony, mutually reinforcing, coordinating, the providential disclosing of God’s purposes through time.

In Mark’s Gospel the announcement by Jesus that he will go up to Jerusalem and there be crucified, and rise again, is stated three times. Peter can only hear the former—persecution and execution--and does not like the full scenario in any case. He rebuts Jesus, and is himself rebutted, sternly corrected, and put in his place publicly before colleagues, and fellow risk-taking followers. In the next two instances, and by his simple moving forward toward this divine goal, we find the twelve quieter in response, and moving along with him. There is some mysterious pedagogy at work, set in motion by Jesus’ firm handling of Peter today. And perhaps the mountaintop scene of final glory he and James and John share, who knows? John has his own version of this, where it is Peter who concedes, “to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Our readings from Romans—like last Sunday, a special selection—and from Genesis obviously set before us the man Abraham, and his wife Sarah. There is nothing intrinsic in Mark’s Gospel that we might observe that links the text to Abraham, in something of the way we often observe that, as with Elijah last week, or Samuel or Jonah, in weeks preceding. The tightest link, orchestration, weaver’s shuttle, is from Romans to Genesis, via the figure of ancestor Abraham, and Sarah.

Paul’s point is that Abraham’s faith in God preceded the giving of the law, and before the command to circumcise. It came when he was old and had no reason to ground his faith in what God was promising—land, children, home—in anything in the human realm. Only in God’s word to him. Here Paul, in Romans 4, is referring to the faith of Abraham in chapter 15 of Genesis, where the author says that his trust in God was accounted to him as righteousness – a righteousness apart from the law. But Paul wants to build on a further point, out beyond the initial promise and the initial response in faith in chapter 12 and its reiteration in chapter 15. Abraham will be a father of many nations, not just one. His progeny will be as the sands of the sea and will also constitute many nations and not one bursting at the seams. His changed name underscores it. Hence the choice of Genesis 17 as our first reading, which builds upon the first and second encounters. Paul has conflated three episodes so as to stress that the promised Abraham’s progeny will be the multitude of nations who can call him their father, and not just those who in time were given the law.

This makes the reference to never wavering in faith a touch ironic, for the careful reader of the Genesis chapters. Both he and his wife take the promise after three declarations, and the birth of Ishmael as an option B, as worth a laugh. But Paul’s point is likely that they kept receiving and holding to God’s promises in spite of all and even with a laugh to relieve the couple now in their nineties. The three solemn encounters with God compounded their need for patient waiting, but also enlarged the promise in a way Paul’s sees as anticipating each and every one of us in Christ.

Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

The psalm captures the force of what Paul is seeing retrospectively, and what Abraham might well have said prospectively from Paul’s vantage point.

26 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, *and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.

27 For kingship belongs to the Lord; *

29 My soul shall live for him;my descendants shall serve him; *they shall be known as the Lord'S for ever.

In the Gospel reading for today we wrap up our 6 Sunday walk through the early chapters of Mark with a selection appropriate for Lent from chapter 8. Next week we turn to John.

Mark says that Jesus is speaking openly. Let there be no doubt. That this plain speaking comes as a strong force is evident from the response. Whatever the disciples might have intimated of his ultimate mission in their time with Jesus until now we may assume was minimal, now halfway through Mark’s narrative line. Whatever else they knew about Jesus, they have come to know him as a relentless, powerful, triumphant, indefatigable and unstoppable life force. A man among men, unlike men. Suddenly he speaks of a stopping – in death, and an unspeakable death, and so taken by Peter to be a death that should not be part of what they have witnessed thus far. Should not be and need not be. His private rebuke is met in turn with public rebuke, stern and unwavering. At least this much is clear. Whatever Jesus is bringing to his relentless public ministry in this life he is bringing to his final confrontation in death. Not just bringing it – here we have no martyr – but seeing to its accomplishment. Describing it in details. This must be why the final part of the design—rise on the third day--doesn’t seem to be heard, given the route to it, and so offers no mitigation. Jesus is neither a martyr nor a superman meriting our awe either. That Peter rebukes and is rebuked is part of the very real drama unfolding, stripped of myth or tragedy. Jesus looked at each one of them the text says when he delivered the rebuke. This will be neither myth nor tragedy but God’s way of confronting Satan and defeating him in all his guises, even ones coopting his disciples in their fear and in their alternative plans. Jesus will show himself fully able to walk this road. He requires for assistance nothing from men and women except their presence and their testifying, to a death that will lead to life.

Abraham stepped out onto a road whose direction and purpose he could not know in details, guided only by the God who would tell him three times, formally, that he was good to his word. Alternative schemes and doubt and detours and stifled laughs came on the road he and Sarah were following in faith. The sheer implausibility did not involve their dying – most of their life was behind them now – but it did involve dying to what was familiar and what could have made worldly sense for the balance of their days. Instead, they heard God’s voice and they left familiar ways to head onto the king’s highway.

Jesus asks his disciples to follow. To listen to God’s son. The cross they take up is the one he has made for them and for us, and which is a yoke lifting off life’s burdens in exchange for the profit of new and eternal life.

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