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Sermon Illustrations for Lent 2 (2021)

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
The American Messenger, in 1922, ran this little story. A young girl, unaccustomed to traveling, was taking a train ride through the country. Along the way, her train had to cross two branches of a river and several wide streams. The water seen in advance awakened doubts and fears in the child. She did not understand how it could safely be crossed. As they drew near the river, however, a bridge appeared, and furnished a way over. Two or three times the same thing happened. Finally, the child leaned back with a long breath of relief and confidence.

“Somebody has put bridges for us all the way!” she said, smiling.

I don’t know if Abraham leaned back in contented confidence, but God was building bridges for him as we read about the covenant being established in Genesis 17. The promises were clear. God would make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation. Abram, his name as the chapter opens, and his wife Sarai, soon to be Sarah, will have a son. Though the way ahead would be rough and there would be dark, difficult times, God’s promises were a bridge over those challenging waters. They were for Abram and Sarai. They can be for you, too.
Bill T.

* * *

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
At last, in this scene, God sets in motion the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and Sarah to give them a son in what seems to be impossible circumstances. God, introduced as El Shaddai, tells Abram, “Walk before me.” What does that mean?

Robert Alter, whose translation of the entire Hebrew Bible appeared only a couple years ago, points out that the same verb is used of Enoch with regards to God, although Enoch is said to walk with God, whereas Abram is commanded to walk before God. Enoch was taken up to be with God without dying. Abram continues his earthly pilgrimage.

Nahum Sarna, in his commentary on Genesis for the “Jewish Publication Society”, states that there is a “corresponding Akkadian phrase ina mahriya ittallak” which had a technical meaning. In return for absolute life-long loyalty to the king a subject was awarded a perpetual grant of land. Walking with God includes an allegiance to God involving the totality of our being in all aspects of life. In Abram’s case, God has promised not only a land but also a name change that affirms he will be the father of many nations.

We’re not used to thinking of receiving a land grant when we’re baptized, but we’re certainly expecting eventually to be welcomed into some heavenly real estate.
Frank R.

* * *

Romans 4:13-25
My faith has changed over time. As a youth I believed much of what I was told, not studying much on my own. As a young adult, I moved away from the church but deepened my personal relationship with God through Jesus. As a middle-aged woman I moved back into church community and the mission and vision nurtured there. I also made the decision in my 40’s to go into seminary and seek ordination as a pastor. Each moment had its challenges and stumbling blocks. Today Paul recounts some of the challenges of Abraham – his age, his childlessness, the history of his faith which might have countered his hope. Yet, Paul reminds us that Abraham believed. He believed he would become the father of nations, the foundation of faithful people. We, looking back, know that to be true. Where is our hope that God’s promises of our faith will be fulfilled? My faith, sometimes tested and wavering, is stronger now than ever before, than in my youth, young adulthood, middle age. God’s promises are true, and I see them fulfilling my life and strengthening my faith. That is the anchor and foundation to which I cling.
Bonnie B.

* * *

Romans 4:13-25
The U.S. Census Bureau research suggested that one in three Americans were showing signs of depression during the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s likely not much better now. We are all haunted by the words of the old rock song, “You’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good, baby you’re no good.”  We all need a word of hope and comfort like this text offers.

What is this forgiveness like, and how does it get us out of this destructive cycle? Martin Luther offers one compelling image:

It is our glory, therefore, to be worthless in our own eyes and in the view of the world... In that extreme despair we hear you are precious in My eyes... (Luther’s Works, Vol.17, p.88)

Therefore, so long as He dwells in my heart, I have courage wherever I go, I cannot be lost. (Complete Sermons, Vol.4/2, p.279)

A modern Swedish Lutheran theologian Gustaf Aulén made a similarly profound reflection on forgiveness:

The watchword of the Gospel is: ‘Come as you are.’ (The Drama and the Symbols, p.165)

Depression has no chance when we realize that in Christ, we are alright as we are, precious in God’s sight.
Mark E.    

* * *

Mark 8:31-38
Following Jesus has never been an easy thing. Some outstanding biblical teachers have wrestled with this challenge.

Billy Graham said in a message called “The Offense of the Cross”, “When Jesus said, ‘If you are going to follow me, you have to take up a cross,’ it was the same as saying, ‘Come and bring your electric chair with you. Take up the gas chamber and follow me.’ He did not have a beautiful gold cross in mind - the cross on a church steeple or on the front of your Bible. Jesus had in mind a place of execution.”

Kyle Idleman wrote in Not A Fan, “There is no comfortable way to carry a cross; I don’t care how you position it. I often talk to people who are convinced that some suffering or pain in their lives is an indication that they must not be following Jesus. After all, if they are following Jesus, the Son of God, doesn’t it follow that things in life are going to unfold smoothly? There is this junk theology floating around out there that points to difficulties as evidence that you must not be following Jesus. The biblical reality is that when people say yes to following Jesus, they are agreeing to carry a cross, and that will be painful at times.”

Thomas Howard and the late J.I. Packer wrote in Christianity: The True Humanism, “Cross-bearing is the long lesson of our mortal life. It is a part of God’s salvation, called sanctification. It is a lesson set before us every moment of every day.” “If life were an art lesson…we could describe it as a process of finding how to turn this mud into that porcelain, this discord into that sonata, this ugly stone block into that statue, this tangle of threads into that tapestry. In fact, however, the stakes are higher than in any art lesson. It is in the school of sainthood that we find ourselves enrolled and the artifact that is being made is ourselves.”

Deny self and carry a cross…that’s what it means to follow Jesus.
Bill T.

* * *

Mark 8:31-38
Jesus called the crowd together to join his disciples after their private conversation and said to everyone: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” He was speaking words that must have felt like a punch in the gut. A torturous death on the cross was meant not only to publicly humiliate the malefactor, but to eradicate their identity. Bodies were thrown into pits to be eaten by animals. Nothing was left. Who, they must have wondered, could be crazy enough to choose a cross?

Therefore, it’s not surprising when we look at the early Christian art of the first few centuries, we find various biblical motifs: Jonah and the fish, Daniel in the lion’s den, the three young men in the fiery furnace, stories about survival in a hostile environment.

What we don’t find is the cross. The cross doesn’t appear in early Christian art until after Christianity was legalized and Christians were no longer being crucified. In one of the earliest depictions, the early 5th century wooden doors of the Church of Santa Sabina in Rome, you will see Jesus and the two thieves standing with their arms extended, but absent is the actual cross itself!

In a recent article in “Biblical Archaeology Review”, Ben Witherington III showed two possible lone examples that might have been magical objects intended to heal sickness. One is a graffito of a man hideously flogged and crucified, and a gemstone depicting a crucified Jesus etched in the surface, with the words “Father, Jesus Christ” etched on the front, along with magical syllables, and on the other side the words “Jesus” and “Emmanuel” spelled in different ways.

Also, there’s a graffito etched on the wall of the slave quarters in the Roman imperial palace. A man with a donkey’s head is nailed to a cross while another man, presumably a slave, kneels with his arm upraised. The mocking caption reads: Alexamenos worships his God.” The very idea that Christians, many of whom were slaves, would worship a man executed like a slave, is mocked.
Frank R.
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