February 28th 2021 – Second Sunday of Lent
Pastor Bryan Niebanck
Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? ~ Mark 8:37
How are you doing on your Lent challenge so far? Have you been doing kind things for yourself or for others? I know that a few have done kind things for others, such as donating to the blanket fund one day, or driving another to our Grief Group on Tuesday, or making a meal for someone else. Another has done some sewing for a family member. How about for yourself? I do not hear about how we serve ourselves as much, and that is just as important. I spent some time reading. I ran for some exercise and to help me get ready for my next marathon, now that it is getting warmer. Yes, for me, running is taking care of myself. Keep letting us know what you are doing and how you find it is helping you to draw closer to God. If we serve others but not ourselves, we burn out. If we serve ourselves but not others, we are not using the gifts that God has given us.
Do you ever feel like you have not done enough for God? Perhaps you are right, and you should think about what else you are called to do. If you do not know, try something until you realize that you are not good at it, then try something else. Perhaps you should ask God. I tried Ultimate Frisbee in college because I liked the thought of throwing a Frisbee around. I made it onto the playing field typically when we were scores ahead or scores behind (which means “a lot”). I was never a starter. So, I enjoyed it for a time, but I moved on. Some of you are wonderful listeners and serve other people very well. Others of you might get impatient and are better at doing things behind the scenes, like organizing the offering. The church needs you just as much as you need the church. Yet at other times, this question arises when you really have done a lot. We often feel that we have not done enough even when we have worked hard for hours, weeks, or even years straight. I can tell you that I do believe that I have done a lot as pastor here so far, but there is always something that I know I could do better, or more of. I have to settle with the knowledge that I will always leave something undone that I wanted to get to, and there will always be an unhappy customer along the way too. Some will like traditional hymns while others prefer contemporary. Some will want to be contacted by the pastor more than they are, and others do not wish to be bothered as much as they are. It is the world that we live in. Yet, I always want to get more done. I want to get my sermon done by Tuesday; if it is not done, I feel inadequate and unprepared for the rush to finish by Wednesday. There are people I have not called for some time, but the hours in the day tick by too quickly until it is too late, and the time is expired. Pastor Craig Groeschel is the Senior Pastor of Life Church, and he recently wrote a book called Winning the War in Your Mind: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life. He noted that he always feels like he is not doing enough. Where he gives more to the church, he is not giving enough for his wife. When he gives more to his wife and kids, he feels he is not giving enough to the church. When he gives more to himself, he feels he is not giving enough to the church or to his family. There is more to the book than that, but the point that he makes is that we need to be continually focused on God so that our minds do not play the drawback card on us. We do not need our minds to bring us down more; we need God to lift us up. That is why we need to ask if we have fallen short in our giving to God. This does not just mean monetary giving; it means the time and energy that you save for God as well. Does God get the leftovers of your day? That can change. Does your spouse or your family? Hopefully not. But that can change too.
We talked last week about how we recognize our transgressions. A transgression is an act that goes against a code of conduct. In Christianity, it is something that goes against the code that we are all to be seeking God. In other words, it is a debt that we have to God that we should seek to repay. This can be paid in time spent together, prayer lifted up to God, in acts of service for yourself and for another, and by passing on the words of affirmation that you hear to another who needs some guidance. We know that we have transgressed when we have fallen weary or feel inadequate, because we have not recently refreshed ourselves with the truth and the strength of God. Of course, there may be another reason why we feel weary which may not reflect a weakened prayer life at all, for Jesus fell weary and was the closest to God of any of us! These symptoms are merely an indication that we need to turn to God in that moment. And, when we turn to God, we turn with the knowledge and the joy that God will forgive any past transgression – any oversight that we have made in building our relationship to God – because God is overjoyed that we are seeking God in that moment. God loves it when we tell God that we need God to get through this next challenge in our lives. God loves it when we seek to build a relationship in God’s name.
We hear from Abraham in the book of Genesis when he is ninety-nine years old. We know very little about what his life was like before this moment when God blessed him and his wife, Sarah. He lived ninety-nine years before we hear about him in the Bible. He may be to us the ultimate father figure, perfect in all ways. But only one was ever perfect, and that is Jesus. Abraham walked with God and surely tried his best to be close to God, and he surely made mistakes along the way. Yet at the moment God sought him, he fell on his face and praised God. He had no doubt that God would fulfill God’s promises. God said, “Walk before me” (Gen. 17:1). And God made a covenant with Abraham that extended throughout the generations. In return for walking before God, we are blessed with our lives and many good things. We are still living the covenant today. And hear this news: God is always seeking us. We need to live up to our end of the bargain and praise God for this. We need to be confident that God will hold up God’s end of the bargain. Just as Jesus promised to be with us to the end of the age, God is always with us (Matt. 28:20).
A covenant is “a solemn promise made binding by an oath … which binds the actor to fulfill his promise” (The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 1.714). Covenants are quite common in the ancient world, though we still make them today as we know them by the term contracts. Many of you have made a covenant with God before, when you joined a church, or when you promised to raise up a child in the church, or when you were baptized or confirmed. You made a commitment to show God your love in return for the new life that God has given you. This is as good a time as any to ask ourselves if we are living up to our end of the covenant. God did not just promise that the covenant would cover Abraham, but all his descendants as well. But in addition to recommitting ourselves to this covenant – daily perhaps – Abraham has something else to teach us as well. Most of us are less than ninety-nine years old. Perhaps he is now one of the most famous early humans, but he lived most of his life in an ordinary way like you or I might live ours. He had trials, made mistakes, and kept faithful to the Lord. The Lord blessed him for it. He can be an example to all of us who lead relatively ordinary lives. He kept faithful and he trusted God.
Bill Kellermann, a Methodist pastor and seminary professor, had these profound words to say about Lent: “To keep Lent is to discover and remember who in heaven’s name we are, as person and community” (Bill Wylie Kellermann, Seasons of Faith and Conscience, 166). In heaven’s name, we are descendants of Abraham. We are part of the covenant. We are children of God. God sees us as worth it enough to seek. We are special in the eyes of God. This has never changed. What has changed is the way people see God, or the way people love God. Lent is not as much about denying yourself certain pleasures and suffering through the season, and more about discovering and/or remembering who we are in God’s eyes. It is remembering the covenant that God and Abraham made together. Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches” (John 15:5). The vine cannot bear fruit by itself without the branches. Nor can the branches grow fruit without the vine. We need Jesus, and Jesus needs us, to expand the kingdom of God. This is why we are special. This is why God seeks us out.
We each have transgressed against God, and we each will again. But God continues to seek us out. God has grace where we have fallen. We may not have done enough to love God recently, but we can try again. I have let my mind wander with thoughts that I can never do enough, but what does God ask of us but to show us God’s love? What does God ask of us than to show God that we want to spend time with God, that we want to serve others, and that we want to worship God? It no longer has to be a burden to us. It is joyful. Our minds are so often distracted by human things instead of on divine things. But we can refocus our minds. We can renew our hearts. Jesus asked a rhetorical question in Mark 8:37: “What can they give in return for their life?” The short answer is to live up to our end of the covenant. Spend time with God. Love God. Love others. And God will barely remember how we fell short before. At least, it will not be on the front of God’s mind.
God’s grace is an indescribable gift. We can experience it in so many ways. It means that we are no longer responsible for where we have failed. We are only responsible for what we do about it now. We fall short. We do not do enough at times. When we do more than enough, our minds still tell us that we are inadequate. That will continue to happen. But if you do all you can to grow closer to God, God loves you anyway. God already has loved you from the time that you were born. What can we give in return? Our devotion. And God will forgive our transgressions, and welcome us with love. I saw a sign on route 20 south of Monroeville that tells us, “Social distancing does not apply to God; draw closer.” We will find that God pulls us in. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.
17:2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”
17:3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,
17:4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.
17:5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.
17:6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
17:7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
17:15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.
17:16 I will bless her, 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.”
8:31 Then he began to teach them that 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.
8:32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
8:33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
8:34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
8:35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
8:36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
8:37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
8:38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”