Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16 Not long ago, we looked at the story of God's covenant with Noah. The story of Noah continues for another couple of pages before we get to the story of the Tower of Babel. Right after that, for about a page, there's a development of two groups of people, the descendants of Shem and the descendants of Terah. Abram is one of the sons of Terah. The story of Abram develops for another couple of pages, including his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot.
Today's story is about a page later. It's about a covenant which God makes with Abram. As is so often the case, the covenant is about something which is impossible-and yet it happens. Nothing is impossible with God-or more to the point, if Creation ex nihilo 'out of nothing' is possible, then anything is possible for God. The covenant looks like so many others: "If you will do X, then I will do Y." What God is promising here is that if Abram will lead a righteous life, then God will make him "exceedingly numerous." That's really improbable; Abram is ninety-nine years old.
What proof do we have of Abram's age? None-only the assertion in Scripture. As is so often the case in ancient writing, exact numbers aren't the point. They're meant to indicate something general, in this case, that Abram was very old. How often do ninety-nine year old men sire children? Even in our age, an age of incredible technological and medical advancement, this would be extremely unusual. Do you know of any? I rest my case. But with God, nothing is impossible.
Verse 5 is an attempt to explain the name Abraham, the new name God gives to Abram. The experts are far from unanimous about this attempted etymological explanation, and I don't know enough about Semitic languages to weigh in, so I'll just say what it says in the story: the name Abraham means 'father of a multitude'. Verses 15 and 16 are a parallel to this, a report of a name-change for Sarai, as well. As of this point, she is to be called Sarah 'princess, noble woman'. She's to be the mother of "kings of peoples".
Psalm 22:23-31 This psalm is not in any way a coreference to the Genesis reading, but it is typical of so many psalms: a call to praise because God has resolved a problem. There is, of course, a reference to Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, but as with our story from Genesis, there's a name change even here. Jacob's new nickname is Israel, the name by which the people of God are called.
The account includes the writer's own praise for all the wonderful things God has done: caring for the downtrodden and supplying food for the people. Then come three predictions:
- The ends of the earth will hear of God's goodness and praise God. Here, there's an oblique reference to Abraham and Sarah: "the families of the nations".
- Even the dead, "all who sleep inthe earth" will bow down to God.
- Future generations will also praise God.
Romans 4:13-25 This is another of Paul's arguments for faith v. the Law, and it does refer back to Abraham; Abraham's salvation, the gift God gives to him, is by faith. As we see so many times in scripture, the benefit comes with the believing of it, e.g., Jesus' healing of the ten lepers. They are healed in the moment when they act-an act of faith-on Jesus' word of healing. They go and show themselves to the priest. So also Abraham acts on God's word-he goes forward as if God's word were already true-and this is a reference back to the Genesis story for today. God's free gift is the gift of grace; it involves no particular virtue of giftedness on our part. It's our participation in God's intention for us, not checkmarks on a list of things we have to do to win God's favour.
What's the takeaway for us? Faith is "reckoned to us" as righteousness, the sort of living which God refers to in the covenant with Abram.
Mark 8:31-38 This story is just past the tipping point of Mark's gospel. The actual tipping point is one pericope-Mark 8.27-30 Peter's Declaration About Jesus-the point where Peter says what he's just realized: "You are the Messiah."
Up until this point, we've been handed little tidbits, little hints, about Jesus' identity. Now the cat's out of the bag, but we're left to wrestle with the issue of what Messiah really means. Big, blustery, ham-fisted Peter has just earned himself a gold star for his realization, but then, moments later, he gets rebuked for his complete lack of understanding.
It's after Peter's confession, the tipping point of the Gospel, that Jesus begins doling out more hints about what his Messiahship entails, what his ministry will properly be, but Peter comes off the rails right away. Immediately upon Peter's "Confession", Jesus says, "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again," and Peter rebukes him for that. That's real arrogance. Students don't "rebuke" their teachers, not without penalties.
The penalty here is a very public counter-rebuke, a public shaming. Peter has acted on what he-and likely most people at that time-believed: that the Messiah would be a strong, wise, righteous military leader who would drive out invaders from Israel and give God's land back to God's people. You have to wonder if that isn't what Peter and all the disciples thought. It may be, so they thought, that Jesus had a strong hand on the scriptures and that he preached and taught in an authoritative way, but way down deep, that was just a side-issue. The real point for them was that the Messiah would be a Davidic king.
And this is how Jesus begins to disabuse everyone of that notion:
"The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again."
And Jesus' handhold on scripture isn't just a side-issue; it's the main point. This is a reference back to the "Suffering Servant" of Isaiah. It's to say that Messiahship isn't great and glorious and physically mighty; it's humble. Humility is the foundation of lasting peace. Humility is rooted in love-and love is the foundation of Jesus' ministry.
The second half of the narrative is also a statement of consequences-a krisis. It's either-or, make a choice:
"If you want to be my disciples, you have to follow me. You have to go to the Cross, too. If you choose to reject that-to save your life-you'll lose Life. But if you want Life, then your only path is the same one I'm walking. Lose your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, and you'll win Life.
If you're ashamed of me-of the Son of Man-then I'll be ashamed of you when I come in the glory of God and the holy angels.
That's your choice. Choose Life."
What does "the Cross" mean? Likely not literally a cross, but it is something which will be hard and humiliating-almost social suicide in our world.