There’s a story going around about the CEO of a large company who was traveling with his wife one day when he noticed his car was low on gas. Pulling into the first gas station he saw, he began to fill his tank while his wife went inside to buy a soda. After several minutes the car was all gassed up. As he turned to put the nozzle back into the pump he noticed his wife engaged in an animated conversation with the gas station attendant. The conversation stopped as he approached and gave the attendant his credit card. But as he was getting back into his car, he saw the attendant wave to his wife and say, “It was great seeing you again.” As they drove out of the station, this CEO asked his wife if she knew the man. She readily admitted she did. They had gone to high school together and had dated steadily for about a year. “Boy, were you lucky that I came along,” bragged the man. “If you had married him, you’d be the wife of a gas station attendant instead of the wife of a chief executive officer.” “My dear,” replied his wife, “if I had married him, he’d be the chief executive officer and you’d be the gas station attendant.”
How true it is! A good wife, a good husband, a good life partner can make all the difference. Someone who really loves us can help us to do and become more than we ever imagined possible. In the Bible, this is the kind of partnership God has with his faithful followers. God stretches their sense of what is possible; God expands and changes even their sense of themselves. This is what God does for Abraham, Sarah and Peter in our readings for today. God invites them to think in new ways, to live in new ways, to become more than they ever imagined.
In our lesson this morning from Genesis, Abram and Sarai are old and childless. They have followed God through thick and thin but they are sure that they will die leaving no legacy. And yet, even though they are almost 100 years old God comes to them and tells them that they will be the mother and father of a great nation, that they will have a son, that they will leave a lasting legacy. God asks them to let go of their identity as Abram and Sarai, an old and childless couple, and to become Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of a great people. What God envisions for them is grander than anything they can envision for themselves.
In our lesson from Mark, Peter thinks he knows what is best for Jesus. He thinks he knows God’s plan. Jesus is the Messiah, the promised one, which means he must be the great leader who will go to war, defeat the Romans, and set the Jewish people free. When Jesus tells him and the other disciples that the Messiah must suffer and die Peter cannot believe it. He tries to correct Jesus only to be rebuked in the harshest way. Jesus knows his calling is not to be an earthly king but a suffering servant, not to take the lives of his enemies but to give his own. During his forty days in the Wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus with earthly power. In Peter’s protest Jesus sees Satan’s influence and he tells his friend – Get behind me Satan. Jesus wants his friend to set aside his own understanding of what God has planned and open himself to a larger possibility. Like Abram and Sarai, Peter needs to see that God’s plans are grander than anything he imagines. But first he has to let go of his old idea of a warring Messiah and see Jesus for what he is – God’s new paschal lamb.
Abraham, Sarah and Peter were forced to confront the fact that what God wanted of them and what they imagined were two very different things. All three of them had to enlarge their vision of life and of themselves. All three of them had to let go or old beliefs and old identities in order to grow, in order to remain faithful. All three of them had to trust God’s plan that on the face of it seemed like an absurd pipe dream or a tragic mistake. They had to trust that God’s ways were larger than anything they could imagine.
This is what our Lord asks of us. When Jesus says, pick up your cross and follow me, we don’t literally have to hang upon a cross as he did. Only a very few of us are asked to truly be martyrs, rather we are asked to let go of that which holds us back from God’s larger purpose. Abraham and Sarah had to let go of the idea that they would die childless and alone. Peter and the other disciples had to let go of the idea that Jesus would save them through force of arms.
I have counseled many a person struggling with one kind of addiction or another. Whether it was alcohol, illegal drugs, sex, gambling, you name it. In every instance each of those people was only able to get beyond their addiction when they were willing to die to a certain understanding of themselves, when they were able to crucify a false identity. Recovery came when they were willing to let go of an identity that said – I am in control, I can handle this, I do not have a problem, I can quit anytime I like. In it’s place they had to come to a new understanding of themselves where they were humbled in the face of their own weakness, where they knew they could not do it by themselves, where they asked for help from friends, family and their higher power, as AA says. They found recovery when they were willing to let go of the illusion that they were in control. In each case, if they were able to let the false understanding of themselves die then they could rise to a new and better understanding where there was fuller life and health. In essence, they had to die in order to rise; they had to lose their life in order to save it.
During this Lenten season ask yourself – what view of myself or understanding about my life am I being called to change, grow beyond, or to die to? What do I need to let go of, to crucify, in order to turn myself towards God’s larger purpose for my life? For those of us who struggle with insecurity, perhaps it is time to loosen our grip on that self-image that says things like – you don’t measure up, you aren’t smart enough, you aren’t good enough. That is something that needs to die. In its place God would have us know that at our core we are the beloved children of God. Perhaps you harbor anger or resentment for a person or people in your life. Anger and resentment poison our souls and warp our personalities. God would have us let go of these things and instead focus on the work of forgiveness, on the grace of understanding. Perhaps you struggle with grief, life literally crucified a piece of you when you lost a person you love. It may be hard to see now, but God has a vision for your future that is bigger than your pain, wider then the reality of this loss. To lose someone you love is to be changed forever. Things will never be the same but you can trust that there will be new life again.
When all is said and done, I don’t think faith is really about belief. I think faith means trusting in the loving purposes of God even when we can’t see them, even when we don’t understand them. Faith means trusting that if we place our lives in God’s hands, as Abraham, Sarah and the disciples did, God can and will do more with us then we could ever ask or imagine. Amen.