Published by Michael Bigg on Tue, 27 Feb 2018 12:03

The text of Mike's sermon from 25th Feb 2018

(Based on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

You would be forgiven for thinking that the essence of Lent is that we are all miserable offenders, faint of heart and brief on the earth. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are but dust and to dust we will return. It’s a season of penitence and self-examination.

And yet Lent is emphatically NOT about our miserable offending. That’s because Lent isn’t really about us at all; as ever it’s all about God. The essence of Lent is God’s mercy and grace – the only sense in which Lent is about us is that we are utterly dependent on this mercy and grace that comes from God.

 

The abridged account of Genesis 17 that we heard is foundational to the whole Gospel. It is one of Paul’s favourite passages and he teases out the implications for us in Romans 4 (and also in Galatians 3). Paul’s great insight is that the covenant is created entirely by God’s grace. It is not on account of anything that Abraham has done that God acts in this way. At God’s initiative a covenant is created and the promise is given. All Abraham “does” is to trust that the God who has called him is faithful and can bring about what he has promised.

Just two observations to make on this.

I’d like to highlight the difference between “belief” and “trust”, or “believing in your head” and “believing in your heart”.

It’s perfectly possible to believe in all sorts of things that make absolutely no difference to your life in any way. Our beliefs can have no impact at all. You can believe in your head that the surgeon is capable of performing open heart surgery and save your life, but you may not trust her to do it.

I believe that our present government is sincere when it says it wants to care for the poorest in our society. But I’m afraid that I don’t trust them to do it.

When I got married my belief that Katy intended to honour her vows was not an abstract head-belief, but was a concrete heart-belief upon which I have staked my future.

The point is this. When Abraham believed God’s promises was it an abstract belief that Abraham could agree with in his head? A belief that made little difference from day to day?

Or was it a heart-belief? A trust in God that actually changed him?

Of course it was the latter. It was a trusting heart-belief that enabled Abraham to have confidence in the promises of God (even though 24 years had already passed since God initially promised to make Abraham and Sarah fruitful). It was concrete trust in God that enabled Abraham to take his son, his only son, whom he loved, Isaac, to be a sacrifice in Genesis 22.

The problem that Paul objects to so strongly is that his Jewish contemporaries have mistaken the sign of the covenant for the covenant itself. He recognises that circumcision of the flesh is an outward symbol of the circumcision of the heart. An abstract belief that being circumcised means you are an heir to the covenant totally misses the point. It is the concrete, trusting, heart-belief in God that makes the covenant, and circumcision is the outward sign of that inward trust. Thus, Paul’s insistence that his “faith” not his actions were credited to Abraham as righteousness. Abraham knew that he was utterly dependent on God’s grace and mercy and trusted in it.

 

A second observation about Abraham. He was old. Sarah was old. They waited for a long time for God to make good his promises. It’s a recurring theme throughout the Bible that God uses unexpected people to do great things. Joseph, the son sold into slavery saves his family. God uses a woman, Esther, to save his people. It is Rahab, the prostitute, God uses to aid Joshua to defeat Jericho. David, the shepherd, the youngest son becomes the great King. Mary, the humble peasant girl becomes the mother of the Messiah. Mary Magdalene, another woman, is the first witness to the greatest moment in history. Paul, the persecutor of the church becomes its greatest ambassador. Abraham is old. Sarah is old.

It hasn’t escaped my attention that this congregation is blessed with a fullness of years. Sometimes, when I preach about vocation and God’s calling upon all of us I wonder whether some of you think “God can’t have any more use for me, I’m too old”. Don’t you dare think it. Don’t worry – I don’t anticipate any octogenarian parents in Brampton. But I do expect and hope for a flourishing of lay ministry here. God has called you. He is faithful. He still has plans for you. Trust that those plans are good and life-giving!



And so we come to Jesus’ famous injunction to “take up your cross”. The one who wants to save their life must lose it.

Let me tell you about a wonderful Japanese theologian called Kosuke Koyama. He’s a bit of a hero of mine. His first book was called Waterbuffalo Theology because he decided that, as a pastor to Thai subsistence farmers, the waterbuffaloes indicated that he needed to preach with simplicity to his people. He decided to subordinate the great theological thoughts of people like Thomas Aquinas to the intellectual and spiritual needs of peasant farmers. Oh that the Western academic tradition would learn that lesson! 

Koyama’s insights on this passage have stayed with me. He compares the cross with a lunchbox, the kind an adult might use to take her lunch to work. The lunchbox speaks of order, efficiency, control. The worker with her lunchbox knows exactly what’s in it. She can carry it easily and is very much in control of her lunchtime routine.

By contrast, there’s no handle on the cross. It’s not something that can be easily carried or controlled. It’s not an efficient thing to carry around. It slows you down and gets in the way.

We control the lunch box. But the cross controls us.

And so Koyama asks. Jesus asks. Do we have a crusading mind? A mind that wants to control, conquer, enjoy power? A mind that wants to be in charge for our own benefit? Or do you have a crucified mind? A mind that takes up the cross and loses its life to it only to find its life? A mind willing to be crucified rather than a mind that wishes to use the cross as an implement to control?

 

The only way to take up your cross is to trust in God. Trust in the great transformer who turned the shame of the cross into Jesus’ enthronement, who transformed death into new life.

Trust God with your time. Trust God with your relationships. Trust God with your finances.

As Jason is fond of saying, you cannot out-give God. At the risk of embarrassing her I’m going to tell you a story. Before we got married we had the conversation about money. I was humbled and embarrassed to discover Katy’s commitment to giving away 10% of her income. I was persuaded to follow her lead and ever since we’ve had a commitment to increase the percentage of our income we give away each year.

Five years, three children and a lower-paid job later I can say that we’ve never been wealthier and haven’t found our trust misplaced.

This isn’t a prosperity gospel. I can’t say that if you give away more money you’ll find a sudden windfall coming your way. However, I am convinced that when you take up your cross and trust God with your life you will find the fullness of life that Jesus promises.

Trust is like a muscle that needs exercise. If you find it hard to trust God with big things, then exercise your trust in little things instead this week. Your trust won’t be failed.

Tell each other about how you’ve trusted in God over coffee and may God bless you all as you trust him more and more.


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