The Second Sunday in Lent, 21 February 2016

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
St. Luke 13:31-35

Background: Cutting a Covenant
There were many ways that covenants were affected in the Ancient Near East, and there were several agencies that would obligate themselves under them. Some of the form of covenant come from political agreements made between nations, mot especially the forms used by the Hittites and the Egyptians. We have several examples of such covenants or treaties from the library at Tell el Amarna. These forms are used in both the Old and New Testament, especially the notions of “Blessings and Curses” which Luke appropriates for his telling of the Sermon on the Mount. The first reading for this morning, however, gives us a sharp image of the word itself in Hebrew, for “Covenant” means “to cut”. If one were making a covenant one “cut the covenant”. We see this in Abraham’s cutting the animals in half, and God (in the burning torch) and Abraham passing in the midst of the halves. There is always an indication of implicit harm or danger in cutting a covenant. Another ceremony involved the two parties to the covenant holding the testicles of the other, showing not only trust but threat as well. Such potential violence is hidden away in the legalese of our modern contractual language – but it is there.

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18

The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." But Abram said, "O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." But the word of the Lord came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then he said to him, "I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess." But he said, "O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?" He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates."

This reading is more than it seems. In the first place it has a prophetic rather than a patriarchal character. The formula, “the Word of the Lord came,” indicates a prophetic contest.  You may want to look at Genesis 20:7, where Abraham is named by God as a prophet. In addition to that aspect we have two scenes of covenant making. The first, verses one through six, concerns Abraham’s lack of an heir. God answers Abram’s concerns with the promise of such an heir (seen in the many stars of the heavens) and Abram trusts the promise. Thus the covenant is made. The second covenantal scene involving the remaining verses involves possession of the land. The former scene takes place in the dark of night – so that the stars might be accentuated, but this scene takes place at dusk, when light and shadow (prominent themes in the scene) are pronounced. The covenant is cut (see Background above) by halving sacrificial animals, and then both parties (God and Abram) participate in the shedding of blood, and the completion of the covenant. Here the concern is over the possession of the land. Presumably once the question of the heir has been solved to Abram’s satisfaction, the concern now centers on a land to possess. It is a promise, however, with a dark side – an indication of the slavery that is to come in Egypt. Thus we have the whole symbolic cycle, which will form the salvation history for Jews and Christians alike in their liturgies and prayers.

Breaking open Genesis:
  1. What promises has God made with you?
  2. What promises have you made in return?
  3. How has God secured your future?

Psalm 27 Dominus illuminatio

     The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? *
the Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?
2      When evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh, *
it was they, my foes and my adversaries, who
stumbled and fell.
3      Though an army should encamp against me, *
yet my heart shall not be afraid;
4      And though war should rise up against me, *
yet will I put my trust in him.
5      One thing have I asked of the Lord;
one thing I seek; *
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life;
6      To behold the fair beauty of the Lord *
and to seek him in his temple.
7      For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe
in his shelter; *
he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling
and set me high upon a rock.
8      Even now he lifts up my head *
above my enemies round about me.
9      Therefore I will offer in his dwelling an oblation
with sounds of great gladness; *
I will sing and make music to the Lord.
10    Hearken to my voice, O Lord, when I call; *
have mercy on me and answer me.
11    You speak in my heart and say, "Seek my face." *
Your face, Lord, will I seek.
12    Hide not your face from me, *
nor turn away your servant in displeasure.
13    You have been my helper;
cast me not away; *
do not forsake me, O God of my salvation.
14    Though my father and my mother forsake me, *
the Lord will sustain me.
15    Show me your way, O Lord; *
lead me on a level path, because of my enemies.
16    Deliver me not into the hand of my adversaries, *
for false witnesses have risen up against me,
and also those who speak malice.
17    What if I had not believed
that I should see the goodness of the Lord *
in the land of the living!
18    O tarry and await the Lord's pleasure;
be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; *
wait patiently for the Lord.

In the first reading, Abram’s enemies were the lack of an heir, and the need for a land to call his own. In the psalm for this morning, the enemies are much more of a flesh and blood nature, and the speaker seems to be in great distress. The only hope offered is that which God extends. Thus there is a sharp contrast between this hope and a visceral fear that comes with the thought of those who are against the speaker. There are some odd tangents in this web of hope and despair. One of them is a stated desire to be in the Temple, most probably seen as a refuge from trouble. The images that come to mind about the Temple fluctuate between the sophistication of a walled building and the nomadic tabernacle. Perhaps we are given the whole panoply of Israel’s experience with God. Another startling phrase is that in which the speaker outs his parents as having abandoned YHWH, and pointing out his own faithfulness.

Breaking open Psalm 27:
  1. Who are your enemies?
  2. How are you protected from them?
  3. How does God support you in your life?

Philippians 3:17-4:1

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Paul loves contrasts and serves them up well in this reading. He observes the behaviors of “the enemies of the cross of Christ,” and then contrasts that with his own (unstated) behaviors that he bids them imitate. And what is the principal behavior and focus that the cross calls to mind? Paul wants his readers to look beyond earthly things – a difficult task in that and in our culture – and to consider a selfless love that the cross represents to those who follow Jesus. He then forms his thoughts in the style of political or communal entities, “But our citizenship is in heaven.” Again, we are met with another contrast, namely the “body of our humiliation,” and “the body of his glory.” Paul urges us to move beyond our own human urges and to model our desires on those of Jesus. Standing firm in that we participate in a new mode of being.

Breaking open Philippians
  1. Whom do you imitate?
  2. Why do you imitate them?
  3. How do you imitate Christ?

Saint Luke 13:31-35

Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

The link between the first reading and the Gospel is Abram’s prophetic nature and his relationship with God, and Jesus’ candid view of how the community that sees Abram as a father now treats the prophets. We are continuing our gradual move to Jerusalem, and the events that will happen there. Along the way there are interruptions that enable Jesus to make his purpose plain. Here it is a supposed warning from the Pharisees about Herod’s plans for Jesus. In a way, this interruption is very much like the situation in which Jesus is questioned by the disciples of John (Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another). The answer in both of these situations is a recitation of the messianic work that is being done, here, “casting out demons, completing healings,” There is, however, a purpose beyond this, and that is to get to Jerusalem, for ‘it is not possible for a prophet to perish outside of Jerusalem.” Here Jesus places himself in a long line of women and men whose purpose has been to announce God’s message to the people.

What follows is a kind of reverie, an almost interior reflection on the role of Jerusalem. It is seen as the place where all things will be fulfilled, and as the place that will soon be no more. It is also seen as the place of God’s hope for the people (read again the psalm for today) with the wonderful image of God as a hen protecting her young. The obduracy of the people, however, stops this moment of reflection, “but you would not!”  In spite of the words from Psalm 117:26, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” the mouths that voiced those praises will be calling for something quite else. Such is the fickle nature of the people of Jerusalem. Jesus explains – I was with you, and you didn’t recognize me.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Why is Jesus intent on getting to Jerusalem?
  2. What will happen there?
  3. What is Jerusalem’s fate?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, 


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