March 1, 2015
Mark 8:31-38
Romans 4:13-25
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:23-31

Dependable Faith

Second Sunday in Lent

from the book
First Lesson Sermons For Lent/Easter

Robert J. Elder

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Drop the Gordita! Have you seen the Taco Bell ad with the window washer who doesn't want to lose his lunch? He hangs between heaven and earth by a thread, as if it is difficult to make up his mind whether to hold on to his taco, or drop it in order to cling to the rope offered by those who would save him.

I once read about a man washing windows outside a large office building.1 When he reached the fifteenth floor, he slipped on the scaffolding that supported him on the side of the building, and just managed to catch a tenuous hold on a line that dangled below the scaffold. He hung there suspended, his grip growing increasingly weak, when someone inside the building spotted him, broke a window, and grabbed hold of him until help arrived. Now it could be said that at the moment of his rescue, the window washer had a choice to make. He could either have caught the hand of his rescuer, or he could as easily have chosen to plummet to his death on the street below. Not surprisingly, he chose the gift of rescue when it was offered.

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One of the common interpretations of God's call to Abraham to travel to a far country suggests that Abraham's response involved a brave and costly leaving behind of all that was familiar, setting out on a journey to some place unfamiliar, waving a choked--up farewell to kith and kin in order to set out on a noble sojourn, a quest. This view just misses the point by a whisker, coming close enough to be a tempting distraction from what is really the more central issue. It is like focusing on the window washer's choice to grab the hand that was offered, rather than on the unexpected and gracious quality of the gift of rescue that came quite apart from the window washer's ability to choose or not choose. So we frequently hear calls to leave familiar things behind and take on risks, taking up brave quests, based on this reading from Genesis, focusing on what we might do to be brave, risk--taking people, when in reality Abraham was just as much at the end of his rope as the window washer. His only real choices were between oblivion and God's command to set out for a new land. If we do not find our responses to God coming in just such neediness as that of the window washer, we will never really fathom the meaning of the story of Abraham and what it means for our faith.

Abraham was called to depart from country, kindred, even his father's house to an unspecified land which God would show him. It sounds for all the world like the heart--rending pictures of late nineteenth century immigrants embarking from European ports to travel to unknown and much misunderstood America, faces in the crowd on Ellis Island in New York harbor, frightened, wondering what their new lives had in store for them. It is a natural way to look at Abraham's call, but not entirely on the mark unless we recall that for most of those immigrants - as for the window washer - their choice was one made in desperation, as a last hope for their lives.

To begin with, consider the fact that Abraham was a nomad. His people were wandering shepherds. One rocky hillside looks pretty much like another when one spends most of the time looking for good country on which to graze livestock. They weren't really settled people at all. They didn't have "a country" in the sense that we do. Consider also that Abraham's father, Terah, had already died - as reported in Genesis 11:32, the verse immediately preceding the beginning of our Genesis passage. That makes a command to leave the patriarchal homestead appear a little less traumatic, doesn't it? What was left there to exercise a hold on Abraham?

Consider also that in the verses just preceding our passage, Abraham's father had moved the family from a country called Ur to one called Haran, even though he had been intending to get to the land called Canaan - so their settlement in Haran was really temporary to begin with. And consider the fact that Abraham was 75 when he answered God's call to go to a new country. Hardly a brave youth responding to the appeal of adventure in a new country! More like a tired old fellow with not many more steps left until the one that would lead to the same place where his father now rested. And finally - perhaps most importantly - consider the fact that just before our morning passage, Genesis reported, rather matter--of--factly, that Abraham's wife, Sarah, was "barren; she had no child" (Genesis 11:30).

Exactly what was Abraham leaving behind when he answered God's call to travel to a new country? A dead father, in a land to which he had developed no great attachment, and no children, no heirs. God had managed to single out a dead--end family living on the edge of oblivion to offer to them a call to go to a new country, a new start. Sarah's barrenness was perhaps the most visible reminder of what was by then an obvious human dead--end. Here was a family destined for extinction. Like a window washer with a slipping grip and a life flashing before his eyes, humanly speaking there was no self--generating future, no possibility, no hope. It was just such a family, empty of hope, which God singled out for a call, not some brave, responsive, forward--thinking hero, but a dusty, dead--end, wretched family. When Paul once wrote in Romans 4 that Abraham had nothing to boast about, it was this that he meant, at least in part. Abraham's response to God's call reflects no particular credit on Abraham. What other choice did he have, but to sit down and die? The window washer doesn't deserve a lot of credit for his rescue, except for having had the good sense to have grabbed the rescuing hand when it was offered.

God provided for Abraham not only the choice to follow the path of faith which leads to life, but did so in circumstances that made this particular gift glitter all the brighter like a sunny, sandy island of promise standing in a dark and treacherous sea of hopelessness.

And there is more. The hand that reached out to rescue the window washer reached out for more than the rescue of just one person. Were the rescue not offered, had the window washer fallen and died, the repercussions would have extended to the company that had employed him, the family that had loved him, the wife and children - if he had any- that would now have to learn to live without him, and beyond.

The rescue of this Abraham who had no living father and no hope of a son salvaged more than a family of nomadic shepherds in ancient Palestine. God promised this heirless old man not only that he would have a son, but more, that he would become father of a great nation, and even more, that he would be a name that would serve as a blessing to every family on earth. That's a pretty good stretch in just four verses - from childless vagabond to a blessing for humanity!

In reverse order from the list of dead--end things he was to leave behind - country, kindred, father's house - Abraham was to bear a promise of untold proportions to an ever--broadening circle: a blessed name, a blessed nation, a blessing for the whole human family. The proportions of that gift are still being worked out in the human family to this day.

Saint Paul - in his theological genius - saw this more clearly perhaps than anyone before or since. Just when humanity had realized in one tragic event after another - disobedience in the garden, murder of Abel by his brother Cain, the Great Flood, the confusion at the tower of Babel - that it had no power to invent a future, a future was given through a man who personally showed utterly no signs of promise.

Humanity, barren of potential of its own providing, is precisely the sort of ground where God speaks the word of Good News. Dead ends are the places where God begins to make highways of hope. From the story of Abraham we can see that God clearly does not depend on some human potential residing in the ones needing rescue. God's work is always a sort of resurrection. Paul says as much: God "... gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist" (Romans 4:17).

God's purpose hinges only on the willingness of the dying one to grasp the hand that rescues it. The gift of God depends on our willingness to receive it, which means finally acknowledging that the true initiative to choose life is held by someone other than ourselves. This sets itself in especially startling contrast with much of the assumptive world of modern times which begins with the presumption that there is only us. All the good gifts that humanity might crave are dependent on the acknowledgement that God has something in mind for us beyond our own conceiving.

Now, in every time there have been - as there are in our time - people who thought it was still possible to gain salvation the old fashioned way, by earning it. These were the folks we meet every day, who tell us that they are relatively certain that they will make it to heaven because they have led a pretty good life and that God surely wouldn't deny heaven to people who are pretty good. Abraham's own life demonstrates that any works - good or otherwise - which are performed with a view to justification are destined to fall short and to belittle the gift of God. God's relationship with Abraham was not based on his leading a pretty good life - we really have no idea what sort of life he led up to age 75 - but on his neediness and his response to the rescuing love of God. Emptied of self, he was willing to be filled with the promise of God. Void of any rightful claims on God, he was open to a gift when it came his way.

If we are not quite like Abraham - that is, if we have not reached a dead end, we have plenty to live for - we might not find it easy to accept the idea of God's purpose for our lives and our world as a gift which we don't deserve. It seems impossible. We subscribe to the human tendency to try to earn God's favor. It is just when we are in such a state of mind - especially if we're failing at it - that it is so helpful to reflect on the likes of Abraham. God's gift - made available to a dead--end straggler like Abraham - will surely be made available to us. All we have to do is close our fingers around that rescuing hand.

And of course, we are doubly blessed, because we know of God's care not as a misty promise of land and descendants, but as the saving love expressed in a savior who is Jesus, who came to us - like God's promise came to Abraham - quite apart from our deserving, quite in spite of our non--deserving. It is ultimately this hand which reaches out to save us. This hand, crucified, nail--pierced, and beckoning to us, is extended on this day and forever. Oh, won't you grasp it? Won't you rescue not only yourself but all those who come after and may bless themselves by your name because of the one who has made himself a blessing for you? I pray that we will.


1. William Jones, The Upper Room, March 2, 1974.