Genesis 17:1-7, 15-20 (Mark 8:31-38)
The Covenants of God, Part 2
In the gospel today Jesus begins teaching the disciples that the upside-down nature of God’s mercy to a fallen world will lead him to sacrificial suffering and death, which will ultimately result in resurrection not only for himself, but for the world. While Peter’s reaction is called out in this gospel, we can assume that all the disciples had the same reaction – incredulity.
In our Old Testament reading, Abram’s first response to what we know of as the Abrahamic Covenant, is met with the same kind of incredulity.
God’s news that Abram will have innumerable descendants from his wife is understandable. Abram is 99 years old! By any measure understandably that boat has long since sailed – he is dried up, empty, and incapable of such a thing. His wife Sarai is no spring chick either, about 90 years old, equally dried up, barren, tired.
– that the two of them would become biological parents. And yet time and time again throughout the biblical witness we see that God dwells in the impossible, the creative, the unimaginable.
Abram immediately falls face down in shock and disbelief at the news. His second reaction is to break forth into laughter. I can easily get on board with both responses – shock and hysteria. Who wouldn’t be shocked at this preposterous idea?
Then, God goes on to rename the couple - Abram and Sarah, and this is not just whimsy on God’s part. Names are significant, especially as we see them used and bestowed in the holy scriptures.
As Christians, in our baptism, the names which are spoken are written down in the book of eternity, along with another name which we all bear – “Child of God.”
Scriptural passages in which God is said to know our names abound, and they tell us that God names us as creatures in whom God delights (62:4), as precious (Isaiah 43:4), and as utterly known and loved (Isaiah 49:1; John 10:14-15).
Under God’s command, Abram, whose name means, “My father the God is exalted” is transformed into Abraham - “The father of a multitude”.
Sarai, whose name means “quarrelsome” becomes Sarah, meaning “Princess” perhaps referring to her role as the progenitor of a line of kings including, ultimately, the King of Kings, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Yet even those two who are known as the father and mother of the faith were far from perfect, both before and after this covenant was struck. Still, God uses them in remarkable ways, despite their imperfections, shortcomings, brokenness, dryness, and sin, as God has done with sinful, imperfect people throughout all time.
We, too, may see ourselves as sinful, broken, dirty, old, empty, or otherwise incapable, but God, who knows us to the depth of our souls, calls us beloved and casts his lot with us. God frees us and calls us to live into the name God has given us – “Child of God”.
Our theme this Lent lifts up the reality we face as we acknowledge our imperfections, losses, confusion, and more; as we confront our sinful natures. In our lives we hunger and thirst to see ourselves as God sees us. We hunger and thirst to break the end the sin-fueled distance we experience in life between ourselves and God, and in relationship with one another and all of God’s holy creation. Engaged in this spiritual journey, we indeed walk on holy ground, seeking God’s wisdom, acknowledging our failures and hurts, and basking in the love of God that leads us to Good Friday, and ultimately, to Easter.
As Sarah and Abraham must do, we seek to reorient ourselves according to the name God has given us, and to know ourselves as capable, by the grace of God, to live into that name.
The thing is, we are not always going to get it right. The covenant God sets before Abraham and Sarah and before us, is to “walk before God and be blameless.” Of course, we hear that word, “blameless,” and we might just as well fall on our faces and join in Abraham’s laughter. Because we perceive “blameless” to mean “perfect” and we know such perfection to be impossible.
We see the same tendencies in our lives; we look self-centeredly to our own material wealth and comfort, power, reputation, and status, and edge out anything that threatens those things, including the people God has sent us to care for, to seek justice for, to seek relationship with.
We marginalize those who make us uncomfortable by their very “other-ness”. We fail to focus on God above all things. We fail to love others in the way God, through Jesus Christ, has commanded we should do. On our own, through sin, we are dried up, barren, tired, and broken.
But when God is looking to do something new, in this case to birth a people who will bear his mark and through whom all nations will be blessed, perhaps, more than any of Abraham or Sarah’s other characteristics, God is drawn to their barrenness; to their emptiness.
An empty pot is an opportunity for God to fill and create vessels of hope and mercy for the world.
There is an old folk story called “Stone Soup,” about a wandering soldier in post-war Eastern Europe, who came upon a village. There was a great famine following the war, and food was so scarce, that people hoarded what they had, refusing to share even with friend or neighbor.
As the soldier approached, the villagers shuttered their windows and closed their doors, telling him, “There’s not a bite to eat in the whole province. Better move on.”
The soldier, however, responded that as a matter of fact, he had everything he needed and was just about to make some stone soup, which he would be happy to share with them if they were hungry.
With great flourish, he produced a large iron pot from his wagon, which he filled with water and placed over a fire he built up, high and hot. With great ceremony he pulled a large but ordinary-looking stone from a velvet bag and dropped it into the pot.
The villagers, curious now, watched from their windows or the town square. As they watched, he sniffed the aroma rising from the pot and licked his lips.
Taking a taste, the soldier declared the soup nearly ready, just perhaps needing a bit of salt and pepper to bring it to perfection. A couple of the villagers scrambled over to him, condiments in hand, which he dramatically tossed into the soup pot, and stirred.
“Ah,” he said to himself rather loudly, “I do love a stone soup. Of course, stone soup with cabbage – that’s hard to beat.”
No sooner had the words left his mouth than someone approached hesitantly, proffering a large head of cabbage. Thanking the fellow, the soldier added it to the pot. Hunger overcame skepticism and the villagers began to anticipate a delicious and filling bowl of soup.
“I once had stone soup with cabbage and a bit of salt beef as well, and it was fit for a king!” the soldier mused aloud. Before long, the town butcher found some salt beef and handed it over into the pot.
In like manner, potatoes, then onions, then carrots, and finally some mushrooms and a few herbs were located and added into an increasingly aromatic and delicious stone soup, which indeed, the soldier shared with the entire village.
With the contributions of many who saw themselves as poor and barren, the transition from empty pot to soup of stone to delicious, nourishing meal became a feast so that all were fed.
God speaks to and uses barren vessels and out of them serves a feast of grace. God uses the most unlikely of people and circumstances, to achieve God’s purposes. God uses imperfect, sometimes wayward thinking people and with them does great things.
The long year we have just endured has left many of us feeling we have nothing to offer, that our pots are bare and dry. It is at such times that God sends the Holy Spirit among us and fills us up, to make a fine, nutritious, aromatic soup out of our stone-hard hearts.
When the pain of our barrenness is so deeply humbling that we feel we feel incapable of rising above it, God raises us up to new life and bring us to new places that we cannot imagine.
The Good News of God’s almighty love and mercy is that God is about creating change – and God often does this best when with tired, old, and empty vessels.
Through our baptism and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, God blesses us in the name of Jesus Christ – sent as God’s love incarnate.
It may seem preposterous to the world that God would die upon the cross to save us from our self-centered, sin-created emptiness.
It may seem impossible that, once placed in a sealed tomb, Jesus would rise again to lead us all to new life.But that is exactly what God has done, and it is good news indeed for all of us who feel the depth of our sin, brokenness, and emptiness.
The covenants of God transform us when in faith and trust, we work together to follow God’s commands.
Like Abraham and Sarah and so many empty vessels whom God turned into prophets and saints, when we trust that God will bless our contributions despite our imperfections, in joy and faith we find that what seem like meager individual gifts, when added to the pot, make a wonderful, nourishing soup of holy love for the good of God’s kingdom.
May it be so for our lives, our community, our church, and our world.