28th February 2021. Second Sunday in Lent
The Anglican priest, poet and orator George Herbert (see footnote) wrote, ‘Welcome, dear Feast of Lent!’ as the opening words to one of his many poems. At first a statement that appears to be at odds with the more secular approach of giving up something trivial. Lent is a reminder that we are invited and truly welcomed to follow Jesus towards the cross and Easter Day. A journey in which we deny ourselves and commit to Christ alone.
Today’s readings recall God’s promises made to Abraham and their fulfilment in Jesus Christ. God’s promises still offer us hope of a good future and fresh purpose. We too reflect on the promises we have made and whether or not we have kept them!
Let us begin with prayer. God of grace, you make us the kind of promises that touch our hearts, promises that offer hope and renewal for our lives. Glad we are, because you have given us strength and hope. Surprised, because this was your idea and not ours. Relieved, because we see grace sufficient for all that the days ahead will bring.
Risen Jesus, you promised to be with your disciples until the fulfilment of all things. Thank you that there is nowhere we could be where you are not. You invite all that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, promising that with you we shall find rest. You promised to all who are thirsty, water that will become a spring of eternal life. In your presence our souls are indeed refreshed and we are given renewed purpose.
Merciful God, you have made it known that “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. Hear us as we confess before you that we have sinned in what we have done or did not do, in our thoughts and with our words. Help us to receive the forgiveness you promise through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Remind us of your promises, that may we live this day in the joy you bring; may we worship you with all that is within us and may we serve you as you deserve. Amen
Scripture readings. Genesis 17. 1-7; Psalm 22. 23-31; Romans 4. 13-25; Mark 8. 31-38.
Please begin by reading the text from Mark’s gospel. Note that Peter’s remarks reminded Jesus of the different choices he could have made, the ones he wrestled with whilst in the desert. Hence the sharp rebuke from Jesus. The expectations to be the kind of hero the crowds wanted, at times a miracle worker, a king who would stand up to the Romans, to become a national hero, was relentless. How could the people then understand how Jesus could talk about suffering and death that lay ahead?
Suffering, Jesus tells them, lies not only for himself but for any who would follow him. Jesus is frighteningly clear that a cross will be involved for anyone who wants to be one of his followers. But those who do choose to follow him will always have Jesus by their side and instead of forfeiting their lives, they will find their true selves.
Jesus outlines three ‘conditions’: self-denial, taking up a cross and following. We are in Lent, that period of 40 days before Easter, when traditionally we tighten our belts and give up something trivial, chocolate or the ill conceived New Years resolution. However, the key to understanding Lent is a change in focus from one’s self, to that of God. Do you truly meet the criteria laid out by Christ? If not, what needs to change!
Crucifixion was a humiliatingly cruel death. To suggest that God was in anyway close to such a death was not only a scandal to the Greek world but also a stumbling block to the Jewish world, which believed that a person who ‘hung on a tree’ was cursed; see Gal 3:13-14. Paul argues that by becoming a curse for us, Christ redeemed us from the curse of our inability to keep the law, ‘In order that in Christ Jesus the blessings of Abraham might come to the Gentiles.’ that is, to all people. Condemned himself, though innocent, Jesus brings freedom from condemnation to others. Luke’s gospel states, ‘Let them.. take up their cross daily and follow me..,’ surely a call to us all to live every day in awareness of God.
Following Jesus turns out to be more than just following, it’s taking up the invitation to live as Jesus did and wanting to be like him. We are called to set aside our devious and manipulative selves and embrace Christ alone as our Saviour.
Please now read the verses from the Psalmist. We read here how great is that love of God. God’s kingdom is offered to all, without exception. God both recognises suffering in his people and is active in caring for them. God is their refuge, a present help in times of trouble. When the Psalmist says, ‘..he has not hidden his face from him (me), but has listened to his (my) cry for help.,’ is he not sharing a recollection of the Exodus story? We also have to note that Jesus quoted from the first part of the psalm when from his agony on the cross he cried out to heaven, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
The heights to which Christ’s love raises us is best understood when we recall the depths to which Jesus went. Many ask the ‘why?’ question, especially in the face of a global pandemic. Jesus understands that, he asked that question too. This Psalm, taken as a whole, traces a journey through brokenness to wholeness. Here is hope for today and tomorrow: ‘..future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn…’vs 30,31.
Here then is an upbeat celebration of the almighty God who hears those who cry out to him. The experience of the Psalmist is that God does not turn aside or hide his face to avoid suffering. Rather God recognises the hardship in the world and looks upon those who endure it with compassion, whether it be the suffering brought upon by injustice, natural disaster or global pandemic. Moreover God journeys with us to the other side of pain where there is found relief and healing, indeed we all may ‘Welcome, dear Feast of Lent!’ Amen
Let us give thanks to God in prayer. Loving God, it feels so tempting to walk away from the tough choices, to see our own individual needs as most important. Like Peter, our focus is on what suits us best.
Yet, you desire more for us, you long for something deeper for us. The way of the cross, denying ourselves; giving up that which makes us feel safe on our own and protected from others, is what brings life.
You turn our world upside down and invite us to choose differently; in losing our lives we gain them. Loving God, help us lean on you when the tough choices come, so that our lives may reflect the way of the cross. Amen
(Nadene Snyman, URC Prayer Handbook, 2021)
For your homework, read through each of the lectionary readings, take you time. Consider the statement, ‘If anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ What is it that you must deny in order to follow Jesus?
George Herbert, 3rd April 1593 – 1st March 1633. See Rejoice & Sing 97, 114, 352, 538, 677.
Go now, and live before God in openness and integrity.
Set your minds on the ways of God,
not clinging to your own life,
but taking up your cross and following Jesus.
And may God give you a share in the eternal covenant;
May Christ Jesus be proud of you when he comes in glory;
And may the Holy Spirit make you grow strong in faith
and lead you in the ways of righteousness.
We go in peace to love and serve the Lord,
In the name of Christ. Amen
And the blessing of almighty God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, rest upon you and remain with you and all whom you love, now and for ever more. Amen