Lectionary Lab PREMIUM Edition for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year A
March 5, 2023
Texts by John Fairless
This week’s theme might well be something along the lines of, “Well, you’re going to have to do it to believe it!” Not just see it, not just look at it, not just think about it — this faith thing is really all about the doing.
Abram is called to a far country by God; there are no real directions other than “pack up and head out and I’ll show you the way.” The psalmist is looking everywhere for help, going so far as to lift his/her eyes up to the mountains: maybe its coming from there! The Apostle notes that even for Abraham, the great progenitor of faith, it was all about grace. One must pretty much be overwhelmed and ensconced in the graciousness of God to even begin to understand what it’s all about.
And then, there is Jesus trying to explain things like the wind blowing and being born from above to good old Nicodemus. Hard as it is to imagine a full-grown man going back to the womb of his mother, Jesus says, “You’re just going to have to trust me on this one, Nic; God really does the love the world — all of it and everybody and everything in it — and God is going to take care of it all forever and ever. Amen.” (Somebody cue Randy Travis!)
As Jesus learned in the wilderness — and will show to the world in the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection — it is really only on the other side of obedience that we learn just how faithful God is to God’s promise.
Sermon by Delmer Chilton
As I studied our scripture lessons this week, the thought occurred to me that both Abraham – who left the edge of civilization to travel about the world, and Paul – a Jew raised in a Greek-speaking province who traveled about the Roman Empire, must have had many encounters where people said, "Where are you from?" "What is that accent?" "Did you say 'reckon'?"
For both Abraham and Paul, this reality of "being a stranger in a strange land" was not a matter of their own choice, it was not part of an attempt to better their lives, or take daring advantage of a new economic opportunity in a new place. They were refugees, immigrants, wanderers upon the earth for one reason and one reason only – they had heard and responded to the voice of God. A voice that called them to leave where they were, and who they were, to go where God directed them to go, to be the people God called them to be.
This business of people hearing and obeying God's voice is a bit unsettling to most of us modern folk, isn't it? I thought I heard the voice of God once. I was six and I lived next door to my grandparents. I often spent the night with them and had breakfast there before heading home.
This was great, because at home - Mom served cereal – at Grandma's - you had homemade biscuits and sausage gravy. This was also not so great, because you had to be perfectly quiet while Grandpa and Grandma listened to MOODY'S OBITUARY COLUMN OF THE AIR.
It started with dark, creepy, organ music. Then a deep solemn, equally creepy, voice began to speak. William Throckmorton, of 1515 Mockingbird Lane, passed away last evening at Northern Surry Hospital. A long-time employee of Carolina Elastic, he was a lifelong member of Turtle Swamp Baptist Church, where he served as a Deacon and Sunday School Teacher. He is survived by his wife, of 57 years - etc. etc. It went on and on, through about 5 or 10 names.
My six-year-old, fundamentalist brain decided the voice on the radio - was the voice of God.
According to the folk at the little mountain church we attended, God was watching everything we did, and one day he would swoop down on us like a chicken hawk on a field mouse, and take us off to something called the judgement seat, where God would evaluate our life, and most likely send us to Hell. That may not be what they said, but that's what little Delmer heard. So, I decided the voice on the radio was God giving a report on the daily harvest of souls as a warning to the rest of us to straighten up and fly right. But, I was only I was six, so I figured I was pretty safe. Then one day I was at Elmer Timmons' barbershop, minding my own business reading comic books – when I heard God's voice, the voice on the radio, say, "Say Elmer, think you could take a little bit more off the ears?" Oh my God, I thought, literally "My God," is sitting not 5 feet from me. The LORD has come to get me! So I ran and hid under the sink in the bathroom.
Now, most of us are not six years old, with such an active fantasy life that we think God could be literally swooping around harvesting souls, or sitting in barber chairs getting a trim. But - we do often get confused, run away, and hide. hide from the voice, the call of God, in our lives. It's often hard to figure out what God is saying, and exactly to whom God is speaking. The story of the calling of Abram can help us listen for, better understand, and more faithfully respond to the voice of God in our lives.
The First thing to notice is – The voice of God is a promise, not a threat.
Notice all the things God promises with the words "I will.":
Verse 1 "Go from (country, kin, and father) to the land I will show you"
Verse 2 "I will make of you a great nation, I will bless you."
Verse 3 "I will bless those who bless you.
God makes promises, but all too often we hear, and occasionally repeat to others, threats. Ten to fifteen years ago, an anonymous donor was putting up billboards on the interstates with messages "from God." I saw one in East Tennessee that said Don't make me come down there. God. God promises to come down here, to be with us, and all too often we turn that promise into a threat.
God came to Abram, in the person of YHWH, with a promise, "I will. . ."
God comes to us, in the person of Jesus Christ, with a promise, "I will be with you always."
God comes to us, in the person of the Holy Spirit, to fulfill Jesus' promise that we will receive, "the Holy, Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name."
And we continually turn these promises into threats. "Don't make me come down there." "Jesus is coming soon, then you'll get what's coming to you." So, when you are listening for the voice of God, if it comes out as a threat, not a promise you can be pretty sure it's not God –it's us.
The Second thing is: "This is not a test!"
There are no strings attached to God's promises: no mountains to climb, no rivers to swim, no rules to follow scrupulously, no body parts to mutilate, no intellectual gymnastics- pretending to believe things you find, literally, incredible. Verse 4a in Genesis, it says "So Abram went. . ." Abram didn't say anything, he didn't do anything, he just "went" in obedience to the voice. Though "going" is an action, it is an action preceded by God's promise, an action rooted in first trusting the promise and the one who makes the promise. In our reading from Romans, Paul builds his whole argument around this matter of believing, trusting, having faith in, God. Verse 4: What does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Reckoned? Reckoned?! That is language we associate with poorly educated country folk. Well, actually, the word reckon, as used in British English, almost exactly mirrors the words it translates from Hebrew and Greek. These words originated in arithmetic. They had to do with counting, calculating, adding and subtracting sums. They soon came to mean adding up the pluses and minuses of a situation or an idea and coming to a conclusion. "To reckon" is to think a thing through, to arrive at a judgement concerning it. Paul uses reckon three times in three short verses. He uses it to argue that God does not "add up" our good deeds, nor does God "subtract" our bad deeds, when reckoning about us. That doesn't mean God just shrugs and says, "Oh well, I reckon he's all right." NO! God makes promises and all that "counts" is that we trust God's promises and act with confidence in God's commitment to us. Our relationship with God is rooted completely in trusting God to fulfill God's promises -freeing us to go out in faith, following where God leads. If there are strings attached to the promise, it's not from God.
The Third thing is: If the promise is for you only, and not for others, it's not from God.
God makes a lot of "I will"/so that promises to Abram. Verse 1: I will . . . show you a land, make of you a great nation, bless you and make your name great. Verse 2: So that – you will be a blessing. Verse 3: (So that )–in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Though the promises were made to one person, they were promises to and for everyone. God called Abram, God called Sarai, God called Lot, God called Israel, God called the disciples, God calls us, to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. But, all too often we try to turn our call to love and serve others into God's call to love and serve us.
I grew up being asked, "Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?" A more modern, version of this is the people who say they are "Spiritual, without being religious." The problem with each of these seeming opposites is the same – they turn what is a call to go out into the world with the promise and presence of God's love; into a personal, individual, self-curated, and self-created faith that centers on what God can do for the almighty me. If the voice in your head seems like it's promising to take care of you and your needs and your development, exclusively, that's not the voice of God inviting you to leave "country, and kindred, and father's house, to go to the land I will show you. . . .So that you can be a blessing to all the families of the earth."
No matter where you are: church, or barbershop, or sitting at the breakfast table listening to . . . . a podcast; if you hear a voice that promises love and support, while inviting you to step out of your comfort zone to love and serve the world, then you need not run and hide – that is the voice of God.
Amen and amen.