The Second Sunday in Lent, 28 February 2021
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Background: Son of Man
In today’s Gospel reading we encounter a phrase that is used by Jesus in a Passion Prediction. It is a term that has a widely different usage in the Hebrew Scriptures than that in the New Testament. We see the term used some 93 times in Ezekiel, and also used in Numbers, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and finally in Daniel. The phrase, ben adam, is translated differently in Hebrew texts. In Numbers the translation is “mortal,” while in Job it is “man”, or “a son of man.” In Jeremiah it appears largely as “man”, while in Second Isaiah it appears as “son of man.” In Daniel it is translated as “son of man”, there a reference to Daniel himself. The usage in the Hebrew Scriptures sees the term as descriptive of individual humans, or of humanity as a whole. It does not function in these writings as a substitute for “messiah.”
In the Gospels we see references to the “son of man” some eighty-one times. These instances are always in the sayings of Jesus. One differentiation of the usage in the Gospels is that the term is always accompanied by a definite article, “the son of man.” This title, if we can call it that, drives to the center of the never-ending debate about the dual natures of Christ – both God and man. Does the “son of man” usage drive to Jesus as a human being, and the other, Son of God, to Jesus’ divinity? Classic orthodox teaching affirmed the dual nature of Christ in the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE), and in the Nicene Creed (325 CE).
Although Like and Matthew make great efforts in connecting the Jesus Story to the Salvation History in the Hebrew Scriptures, this phrase is not one of these connectors. As Jesus uses it in the synoptic Gospels, it is usually self-referential. It is also used in eschatological sayings in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. It is a term used only by Jesus, and is not used by others describing Jesus’ nature. Jesus uses it to describe his ministry, and in apocalyptic sayings as well. There are several layers in the traditions of this phrase, none of them so definitive as to make it into the creedal statements of the Church. Just to close this brief article and to bring a sense of understanding to the term, M Eugene Boring in his commentary describes this phrase “son of man” in these words: “the one who acts on earth with transcendent authority.” This makes for a nice blend of Hebrew concepts, especially Daniel, and Jesus’ own usage.
First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
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. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 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. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 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.
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 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.”
Our translation of this reading substitutes the word “Lord” for an archaic name for God, El Shaddai. There are two segments of this reading, one of which has been removed from the lectionary for this morning. This reading is about the Covenant made between God and Abram, one of several in the Hebrew Scriptures. The part that is elided from the reading is the demand that those (men) allied with YHWH must be circumcised, and provisions about how that might be administered. The Covenant, however, has other circumstances, namely the nations that will flow from him, and the promise of an heir. If you read beyond the confines of this reading, you will notice that in this story it is Abram who laughs, not Sarai. This reading also functions as the cusp of two different traditions, the Abram/Sarai tradition, and the Abraham/Sarah tradition. It also may function here in showing that the covenant alters the reality of Abraham and Sarah’s life. They are now a new entity in God’s sight, and in their own self realization as well.
In Chapter 15 we have another account of a covenant made between Abraham and God. In this instance the understandings of the covenant are more Mesopotamian in nature, the two parts have more of an equal standing. In the covenant made in our reading today, there is a more Hittite understanding of the covenant. Here it is made between a suzerain (God), and a vassal (Abraham). The multiple telling of this agreement, and the niceties that accompany them speak eloquently of having a relationship with God – a relationship that not only involved self, but family, and the future as well.
Breaking open Genesis:
1. What is the fear that guides Abraham’s relationship with God?
2. What is God’s promise that breaks that fear?
3. What is your covenant with God?
Psalm 22:22-30 Deus, Deus meus
22 Praise the Lord, you that fear him; *
stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel;
all you of Jacob's line, give glory.
23 For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty;
neither does he hide his face from them; *
but when they cry to him he hears them.
24 My praise is of him in the great assembly; *
I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.
25 The poor shall eat and be satisfied,
and those who seek the Lord shall praise him: *
"May your heart live for ever!"
26 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, *
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.
27 For kingship belongs to the Lord; *
he rules over the nations.
28 To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; *
all who go down to the dust fall before him.
29 My soul shall live for him;
my descendants shall serve him; *
they shall be known as the Lord’s for ever.
30 They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn *
the saving deeds that he has done.
The opening verse of this psalm reveals why the framers of the Lectionary chose to use it here. The heirs of Abraham and Sarah are invited to praise God and to acknowledge their relationship with God. The psalm continues by outlining the blessings that God offers to the people chosen of God. These then are the things that are worthy of praise of God, which Israel is bidden to do. God’s care of the lowly are greeted with praise and thanksgiving in the great assembly. There is a spectrum that is painted for us, stretching from the concerns of a poor wretch to the memory of graces given to the ends of the earth, to the families of nations. The extension goes even further, from those who have died and rest in the earth, to those yet to be born. It is a magnificent scope of awareness and praise.
Breaking open Psalm 22:
1. For what do you praise God?
2. How does your family, your children, or grandchildren, how do they praise God?
3. Whom do you remember who now rest in God’s bosom?
Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null, and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
This is such an excellent reading for today’s Gospel, Psalm, and reading from Genesis. Paul works to convince Gentile Romans that they too are a part of the family of Abraham, chosen of God. The binding factor that Paul sees in Abraham’s life and relationship with God is faith. Paul notes that despite his age, and Sarah’s “barrenness” Abraham is moved to trust God and God’s promise to him, that he would be a father to many nations. Paul goes on to note that the Law was not what made Abraham and his heirs righteous, but rather faith in God’s promise and actions. Remembering the words of the psalm for today, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall bow before (God).” The seeds of this family come not only from the loins of Abraham and Sarah, but from the seeds of trust in the promise. That promise, Paul argues, was made real in the resurrection of Jesus. It is a promise kept.
Breaking open Romans:
1. How do you see yourself as a part of the family of God?
2. In what ways is Abraham your father, and Sarah your mother?
3. What are your connections to the Jewish community?
The Gospel: St. Mark 8:31-38
Jesus began to teach his disciples 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 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.”
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. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 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.”
Just days ago the Church celebrated The Confession on Saint Peter (25 January) in which Peter confesses that “You are the Messiah”. And now just verses later we meet a very different Peter. After our Lord’s Passion Prediction, Peter takes Jesus aside and asks Jesus to reconsider – bad policy and planning in his mind. There is equal rebuke to Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!”
There are two sections to this reading for today. The first is the Passion Prediction, and the second is the Conditions of Discipleship. The hinge between the two is Peter and Jesus’ contretemps. Jesus’ mood and retort to what Peter has to say ought to prepare us to look more closely at the expectations in following Jesus. After all, that is what we have committed ourselves to do. If you think that this is a private affair between a disciple and the rabbi, note how the instruction to the disciples is introduced, “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them…” We are involved. We are either disciple or part of the crowd. “If anyone,” Jesus says to us. This is not a comment to a crowd or group but rather to the individual.
The first cross that Jesus wants us to take up as his disciples is his own – the whole idea that he must suffer and be rejected and be killed. It’s a difficult expectation, and as humans we can understand Peter’s complaint and reserve. Things are being turned on their head, and is best summarized in Jesus’ comment, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life.” Or later on, “those who are ashamed of me and of my words… of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed.” Perhaps it is best to go back to the question posed by Jesus to Peter and the others, “But who do you say that I am?” I once had a difficult conversation in my parish when I placed a crucifix right by the pulpit. A member told me that she was embarrassed and confused by the image. I wondered if it was a bit of an anti-Catholic attitude, or if it truly was a difficulty in taking up the cross.
We know difficult times, and are living through them. It would be interesting to preach on all the crosses that have been presented to us in this last year, and to propose ways of lifting them up with courage and resolution. We follow Christ to the crucifixion, but we also follow him to the tomb, and to the resurrection. I recall one Good Friday at the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the Liturgy, a woman came up to the cross during the adoration, and heartily embraced it. I have never forgotten that image. It directs my Lenten observance.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. What do you find objectionable about what Jesus says?
2. How do you resolve that conflict?
3. What are the crosses in your life – how do you bear them?
General idea: On having faith
Idea 1: Exploring the faith of Abraham (First Reading)
Idea 2: Having faith enough for those yet unborn (Psalm)
Idea 3: Seeing and having faith in your community (Second Reading)
Idea 4: Faith enough to take up a cross (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2021, Michael T. Hiller
 Boring. M. E., (2006), Mark: A Commentary (The New Testament Library), Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, Louisville, Kindle Edition, Location 6994.