The Power and Promises of God

Sermon delivered on Lent 2B, Sunday, February 28, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22.23-31; Romans 4.13-25; St. Mark 8.31-38.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

In one way or another our readings this morning focus on the power and promises of God and the faith needed to appropriate them. Why are the power and promises God vital for us as Christians? First, because they make us properly focus on God instead of ourselves, and second, because we live in a world that appears to be spinning out of control at an increasingly alarming rate; and if we do not believe in God’s power or promises, sooner or later the world’s insanity and darkness will take us down with it. Simply put, when we focus on the power and promises of God, we will have hope that God really is in charge and things will turn out precisely as God has always intended, sometimes despite our best efforts to defeat those promises! But when we focus on our own limited and ephemeral power, the basis of our hope is far more tenuous. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

We begin with our OT lesson. In it we see God once again promising Abraham that God would make him the father of many nations, giving him descendants too numerous to count. This despite the fact that Abraham was nearly 100 and his wife Sarah was 90, way too old to bear children. Keep in mind that Abraham had heard God promise him offspring for almost 25 years (Gen 12.1-4) and this latest reiteration of the promise would surely have forced him to decide if he really still believed in the promises of God. From a strictly human perspective there would be no reason to believe God. Abraham had heard this promise for a quarter century. Most of us get impatient after 25 seconds let alone 25 years! And the biology was all wrong. We all know 90 year old women don’t get impregnated by 100 year old men. Had Abraham relied on conventional human wisdom he would have scoffed at God’s promises—and as a result have no future, no hope. Old age was already on him; all he had to look forward to would be increasing infirmity and death. In fact, while the author does not tell us this explicitly, we know from the story that Abraham and Sarah did struggle with God’s promises of progeny because they took the matter into their own hands and Abraham ended up having a son through Sarah’s slave, Hagar. Were they simply being impatient with God (who could blame them after such a long time had passed?) or did they simply lose faith in the promise? We aren’t told. What we are told is that this part of the story did not have a particularly happy ending for the parties involved. This is typically what happens when humans refuse to trust in the promises and power of God. 

But we are talking God’s power and promises and God’s promises will not be denied. Despite their momentary relapse into doubt and despair—two of the many symptoms that always accompany unbelief and lack of trust in God’s power, promises, and character—God still made good on his promise. Sarah would deliver Isaac, the son of the promise. But that was later. Here we are told that Abraham believed God would be good to his word because he fell on his face in worship and trust. Furthermore, we are told in the verses immediately following our lesson that both he and Sarah laughed, not the cynical laugh of derision we see from people who don’t believe in the power and promises of God, but laughter from an old man and woman who had seen a future with no hope and promise transformed into a future with a hope and a promise by the faithfulness and power of God. As St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, Abraham trusted in God’s promises, i.e., he had faith in God, despite the apparent hopelessness of his situation because he trusted the power of God, the God who gives life to the dead and who calls into existence things that do not exist. For this God, nothing is too hard to accomplish. Nothing. When we have this kind of faith, a faith that trusts in the power and promises of God no matter how desperate or impossible the situation, we are assured that God will turn our tears into laughter just like he did Abraham’s and Sarah’s.

Contrast Abraham’s trust in the power and promises of God to St. Peter’s in our gospel lesson this morning. In the verses immediately preceding our lesson, by God’s grace St. Peter had declared boldly that Jesus was the promised Messiah, God’s anointed one who would deliver Israel from its oppressors and establish God’s kingdom on earth. St. Peter, like many of his contemporaries, believed that God’s Messiah or Christ would overthrow Israel’s enemies using conventional means: might and power. There was no room in their Messianic thinking for a crucified Messiah. The notion was incoherent and therefore simply not conceivable. Combine this with the sure fact that St. Peter loved Jesus deeply and wanted the best for him, both as a man and as God’s Christ, and it is not surprising that St. Peter responded as he did to our Lord’s dire prediction that he must suffer and die a Godforsaken and utterly degrading death by crucifixion. God forbid this happen to you, Jesus! Here we see in this powerful and poignant interchange between the Lord and his chief disciple a very different kind of faith emerging. Instead of looking at the power and promises of God that Scripture had foretold, St. Peter relied on traditional human wisdom and convention to rebuke his Lord. And in doing so, Christ turned his laughter into tears by calling him Satan! What just happened? 

It’s likely that Jesus didn’t believe St. Peter to actually be Satan, but rather that in his own misguided expectations and concern for his Lord, St. Peter had allowed the the Accuser (Satan) to tempt Christ from going to the cross, thus thwarting God’s promise to redeem humanity from our slavery to powers far greater than Rome or any worldly power: the powers of Sin and Death, powers that have enslaved humankind ever since our first ancestors rebelled in the garden. This is how Satan typically operates. He plays on our fears, thoughts, emotions, and proclivities to corrupt us and others in an attempt to thwart God’s will. In this case Satan knew, as did our Lord, that the cross was the only way to win our freedom because it was God’s appointed way, a way that ran contrary to and shamed conventional human wisdom (cf. 1 Cor 1.18-25). Avoid the cross and the enemy is not defeated. Go to the cross in cooperation with the will of the Father, and the enemy’s power is undone and Satan and his minions are defeated.

God had promised Abraham that he would bless and restore fallen humanity through Abraham and his descendants, but they had failed the faith test almost immediately after God delivered Israel from their slavery in Egypt. Soon thereafter they built a golden calf to worship in the absence of their leader Moses. Now God had come to his people in the person of Jesus to deliver them himself and as we saw last week, Jesus passed the first wave of temptations he faced in the wilderness. But Satan was not finished. Having failed the first time, Satan tried to tempt Christ again, this time using Jesus’ trusted friend to derail his great saving task of dying for the ungodly, for you and for me, so that we could be rescued from utter destruction. Unlike Abraham and the psalmist, who showed his faith in God’s ability to turn suffering into joy—our whole psalm lesson flows from the verses that preceded it, verses that spoke of the unjust suffering of God’s faithful servant to redeem God’s people, verses that our Lord cried out as he felt God’s abandonment for the first and only time in his life—St. Peter did not trust in the power and promise of God, and Satan used St. Peter’s protestations for his own wicked purposes. But as Christ then warned his disciples and us, that’s not how the power of God works to fulfill the promise of life. You want life? Jesus asks. Then lose it. Give your life to me. Deny your fallen self with its myopic and selfish desires. Take up your cross instead and follow me in my way of self-giving love because only in me can you find life and hope and a future. Dare to proclaim me as the only way to escape death and utter destruction. Do justice. Love to show mercy, and walk humbly with me, your God. You will suffer greatly when you follow me because the world and its powers hate me and won’t go down without a fight. You will be persecuted, humiliated, mocked, scorned. But here’s the thing. In your suffering you will find life, both here and hereafter. But first you must trust my promise and how I will bring it about, even if you don’t fully understand how my power works to fulfill the promise. Only when you trust me fully by giving me yourself and your life can I turn your tears into laughter and give you a future and a hope. It is the only way.

These stories confront us and challenge us to examine the depth of our faith and trust in the power and promises of God. We live in perilous times. We are cursed by a wicked disease that simply won’t go away. It isolates us and makes us afraid. We wonder where God is in it all. Many of us fear for our nation, for its present and future. More and more extremist and utterly godless ideas are being pushed as viable solutions to our problems. The cancel culture is out of control, attempting to consume everything and everyone that gets in its way. If we don’t toe the line, we can expect to be silenced and shamed. Do we really have a hope and future in this kind of environment? And what about the Church with its scandals and decreasing attendance, at least here in the West, and its increasing departure in some quarters from the faith once delivered to the saints? What is our future as Christians who live in an ever increasingly secularized and hostile culture? How can we live faithfully? Do we really have a future and a hope as God’s people? Paradoxically, how are we to live faithfully in exile in our own back yard? The short answer is that we must have the kind of lively faith that produces a trust in the power and promises of God so that we do know that we have a hope and a future. But how do we do this?

If we are to have a living faith and trust in the power and promises of God, we must first remind ourselves regularly what is God’s promise for us as Christians. Our hope and future is new creation, God’s new heavens and earth fused together under the just rule of Jesus Christ where death and sin and evil and sorrow and sickness and brokenness and new bodily life go on for all eternity. It is a rule made possible and launched by Christ’s death and resurrection and promised only to those who believe in the promise and live their lives accordingly in this life. The promise of new creation gives us a future filled with life and joy and meaning and purpose. Yes our mortal body will die barring Christ’s return to finish his work before that day. But as Christ promises us in St. John’s gospel, he is the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in him will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in him and believes in him will never ever die (11.25-26). If we really don’t know the promise of God to heal all things and make them new or we don’t believe he has the power to raise the dead, we can never hope to have our tears turned to laughter. Without God and his power, we are doomed to a life of utter hopelessness and despair, the brief periods of respite, pleasure, and success that we sometimes enjoy notwithstanding. Why? Because the powers of Sin and Evil are not defeated. We remain in our sin and death must reign. There will be no happy endings. Real justice, perfect justice, will never be achieved. Our hurts and wounds and sicknesses and alienation remain because our slavery to Sin remains unbroken. The promise of new creation, a promise based on the power of God alone, is the only balm that can ever truly heal because only then will all the wrongs be put to rights so that we are completely healed from all that bedevils and sickens us. 

If we are to know this power we must know the Author of the promise, Jesus Christ and him crucified and raised from the dead. We come to know him through regular worship, prayer, Bible reading and study, and fellowship. We come to know him by wrestling with the unlikely power of God made manifest in Christ’s crucifixion. We come to know him by feeding on his body and blood each week so that our body, mind, and spirit are strengthened and refreshed by his power. This is a great challenge to us because we are wired through the Fall to trust no one but ourselves and our own power and cleverness. But that produces death and sorrow. We see it in Abraham’s descendants—time does not permit me to talk about the litany of bad living that would make any modern-day reality show pale in comparison—and our lives every day. Each day that we choose to trust ourselves rather than the promises of God, we die a little more and edge closer to eternal oblivion. We realize, even if we refuse to admit it publicly or to ourselves, that like Abraham we are 100 years old, irrespective of our actual chronological age, and our future is bleak and impossible. But if we know the One who creates out of nothing and gives life to the dead, if we know his love for us because we have seen and believe his cross and empty tomb, if we see his power demonstrated in countless ways in our lives through the power and Presence of his Spirit, we are able to overcome and develop a lively trust so that we know we have a future and a hope, the future and hope of a new creation. This is the regular challenge for us as Christians, especially during Lent. We are called to put to death all that is in us that makes us shrink from God so that we deny his faithfulness and do not trust him or his power or promises. We are called to abandon our tepid faith and to live our lives gladly in ways that proclaim Christ is Lord and that without him, no one has life in them. No one. 

If you don’t know where to start in this task, try this. Examine your life to see whose will you seek in all that you do, things big or small, yours or God’s. If you find yourself compartmentalizing your life in ways that only partially honor and demonstrate trust in God, this is where you must begin the painful task of killing off your fallen self with God’s help. The stakes are enormous, my beloved, and the cost is great; it requires that you come and die. But so are the rewards; and so we count it all as gain because we believe, by the grace of God, in the power of God and his promise to rescue us from Sin and Death—if not always from the vicissitudes of life—so that we can live with and enjoy our blessed Lord’s presence for all eternity. Only the power and promise of God can give us this hope. This Lenten season, may we all find our faith in Christ strengthened so that we may live out and proclaim this faith boldly each day of our lives in the power of his love and Spirit. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.