Accepting the Unexpected
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17
Throughout my life I have heard stories of amazing events and unexpected events that have taken place in people's lives, many of them during the season of Lent. Along with those stories I have heard stories of the reactions that people had to those unexpected situations. I know that there have been moments in my life, when all I would expect is for one reaction, one emotion to present itself in response to a situation and yet something completely different comes out instead. Those are the moments when you laugh uncontrollably without understanding why or when you sob even though you are happy. I have definitely had those moments. And I have sat back and watched others experience them as well. Because of the story I am about to share with you all I will owe my mother either a lovely dinner or many years of therapy.
You see when my brother was married nine years ago we caught such a moment, a moment of unexpected reaction, on video tape. Now this is one of those moments that looking back probably could have won some award on "America's Funniest Videos." My mother is a wonderful woman. Many of you have had the privilege of meeting her over the last 6 months. She is a woman who loves her children. And on that day she was very happy that my brother, her firstborn child, the self-proclaimed "bachelor for life", was going to be married. Just about halfway through the ceremony the moment was caught on tape. My father looked over at my mother, realized she was sobbing uncontrollably, and then proceeded to ask her what was wrong as any sensitive husband might do. When she said that there was nothing wrong, my father said the following words. "But I thought you were happy." Well, I think if fire could have shot out of my mother's eyes at that moment it would have, but we all know that fire and water don't mix so well. Through her sobs, and attempts to wipe away her uncontrollable tears, she shot my father a glance that would freeze anyone in their tracks and said, "I am happy!" To which my father proceeded to laugh his head off. There are definitely times when we expect to react in one way but end up reacting in a completely different one. I share this story with you because I think that both Abraham and Peter were in the same boat. Perhaps they both would have expected to react one way, maybe graciously and willingly, to anything that God threw at them, but let's look at what they did instead.
Picture Abraham. Abraham thought that he was as good as all washed up. The only way he was able to have a child was with his wife's servant, Hagar. He is 99-years-old in this story, and here comes the truly unexpected. God calls to him and calls him into covenant. "And I will make my covenant between me and you and make you exceedingly numerous." "Whoa, God, excuse me?" "I will bless Sarah, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her." "Right, God…right?" Abraham was smart enough to know that it would take a miracle for Sarah, being in her nineties as well and having been barren her whole life, to bear a child. But this is God we are talking about. "What is going on?" we can imagine Abraham thinking to himself. And instead of being gracious and praising God, Abraham laughed and laughed. He laughed at the unexpected as a step along the way to accepting it.
Now picture Peter. He had been called to ministry completely unexpectedly, while having a really bad night fishing. He continuously left his home to travel with Jesus to spread the message about God. Peter was a leader among the disciples, and he was a believer. He was one of the people who expected a Messiah to come to save the nation one day. He knew that this person was going to be everything that the ancestors wrote about him being. The Messiah was going to be strong and mighty, saving believers from persecution and oppression by force, like a military might. Instead, here Peter sits with the other disciples. He has watched the miracles Jesus has performed. In fact just before this scripture passage is one about Jesus healing two blind men, which was the final eye-opener for the disciples as they came to realize that Jesus was truly the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one of God. And yet, Jesus explains to the disciples, in the most open and honest way he knows how, that he is going to be rejected, that people are going to come to hate both him and his message, that people will not understand who he is, and therefore he will suffer unto death. He will suffer and through his death and resurrection will call his followers to a new form of life.
This is not the Messiah that people who believed in a strong and mighty God expected. "Uhh, Jesus, can I see you over there for a moment?" we can imagine Peter saying. "What are you talking about? I can't believe that you would tell these people, these people who have left everything to follow you, who have come to believe in you, a lie like that. For you to be rejected, to suffer, to die…well, that's just impossible!" Jesus' response to Peter's rebuke was surely unexpected. "Get behind me, Satan." He felt that Peter's refusal to believe him was yet another version of temptation. A paraphrase of today's scripture reading from Mark says the following: Jesus told them, "I'm going to be executed. Yes. But on the third day I will be back alive again. And you can expect no less yourselves. If any of you wants to be a part of me, you have to put aside your own priorities and imitate mine… I'm here to show you how to deal with it, with dignity, to discover your true self….How could you find the fulfillment you were born for, if you achieve absolutely everything the world tells you will make you fulfilled, and yet there's no true self within you?"
People have looked at these stories before, at these scripture lessons and said that Abraham and Peter's reactions were unbelievable. After all this was God who was speaking to them. But I would have to disagree. I don't know what I would have done if I was in the sandals of either Abraham or Peter. On the one hand you have a 99-year-old man who is now being promised a multitude of nations. Your wife, the completely barren Sarah, shall bear a child. On the other hand you have a man who has been at Jesus' side since his call on a fishing boat…now confronted with the idea that the man he is working for and with to spread the word about the Kingdom of God is going to suffer and die. What would I have done if I had been either of these men? I don't know that Abraham or Peter's responses were so far off base. Abraham laughed…a laugh of nervous unknowing but with undertones of a confident trust in God. Peter rebuked Jesus, a reaction based on confusion and loyal faith. Both of these men were suddenly blind-sided by the unexpected.
Here we sit together on the second Sunday in Lent. This is a time when we are called to examine ourselves. We are asked to delve into our faith lives, and we are asked to open ourselves up to God. We are asked to be on a kind of faith retreat, tithing one-tenth of our year's time, amidst the everyday things that life brings. We are asked to radically connect with and open ourselves up to God…and not just for examination purposes but, just like Abraham and Peter, also for a brand new perspective. If we are true to this process, to the retreat-like character of Lent, we can only imagine what can happen. The unexpected is just around every corner of our lives just waiting to come about.
There is blessing in this seemingly difficult calling. Imitating Jesus' priorities is not always easy, but at least we know what the number one priority is…the Greatest Commandment. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus calls us to make God a priority. In one children's sermon I have seen and used with other groups there is a container of marbles, the marbles symbolize what we feel are the priorities in our lives. There is also one very large marble symbolizing God. When the smaller marbles are put into the container first, and you try to fit the largest one in last, the cover will not close. But when you put the largest one in first and then fill the smaller ones around it, the container closes perfectly. The lesson: when we make God a number one priority in our lives, other things tend to fall into place a little bit better, and the burdens are easier to face and handle...even the unexpected is a little bit easier to accept. We are called to love God, to offer up praise to God, to live our lives in light of the belief that there is a God, the same God of our ancestors in faith, Abraham and Peter. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, to show love unto others even when we want to shoot fire at them out of our eyes or rebuke them for something they say that we cannot possibly agree with. And Jesus calls us to love ourselves. Love your neighbor as yourself. Understand that even as we are called to do the difficult work of Lent, we are still reminded to love ourselves, to take care of ourselves. Even as we are asked to examine the past, to look inside and find who we really are, complete with faults and foibles, we are ultimately beloved children of God. We need to do the difficult work of Lent, the self-examination, asking ourselves the hard questions about who we are and who we are not, who we were and who we want and are called to be. Without the difficult work of Lent we cannot be transformed and motivated to take action, to take up the ministry that God has in store for us. Lent is about taking up the tough questions, being willing to accept the unexpected, and making Jesus' priorities our own, complete with the knowledge that he made the ultimate sacrifice for us.
But the other blessing of Lent is that it is not a solo journey. We learn from the stories and unexpected responses of our ancestors in faith. We join with other brothers and sisters in Christ all around the world to experience this time. We join together in this community at Lenten Lunches, devotions, adult studies, and on Sunday mornings to find comfort in sharing this time of unknowing possibility and unexpected findings and opportunities. We come together to share the reactions that might not be accepted anywhere else in this world and to gain new perspective on who we are, who we are to be, and the ways we are able to serve in this crazy world of ours.
Perhaps for my mom, or for Abraham and Peter, the stories we have shared here this morning were not the most shining moments of their lives. But despite them or beyond them, God has used each of them, and all of us, in amazing ways throughout history. Abraham, despite the hysterical fit of laughter, did become the Father of a Multitude of Nations, an ancestor of our own faith as we gather here today. Peter became one of the founders and pillars of the Christian Movement…not too shabby for two guys who could have thought of about a million better ways to react to some pretty important, even though unexpected, messages from God. God surely knows how to break into lives at the most unexpected times in the most unexpected ways. Throughout Lent we study stories like these in order to learn from them. One of the goals of Lent is to help us strengthen our faith, to give us some added strength and support for the journey we call life…to help improve our ability to accept the unexpected for we never know when God just might come to call on us.