Written by Malcolm Kern
Lent 2: Beyond Imagination
Growing into the Mind of God
Mar 1, 2015
[[ Personal update ]]
I don’t know how you’ve tended to think of Lent and Lenten disciplines. But I would like to suggest for our consideration this morning that we look at Lent and our Lenten disciplines through the lens of the rebuke Jesus gave to Peter in the gospel text we read this morning. No, not that Lent is a time for God to beat us up for our failings! I mean we can think of Lent as a time for deliberately taking up those attitudes and disciplines which makes us more and more into people who have in mind the things of God, over and beyond the things of merely human concern.
Now with Peter as our example, our first observation is that getting the mind of God is not going to happen in a sort of a “once and for all” download. Let me explain. Immediately prior to the gospel text we read this morning, Jesus had been asking his disciples who the people thought that he was, and a variety of different answers were put forth. Then Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter responded, “You are the Christ.” You are God’s Messiah, God’s champion, the one God has appointed to ascend David’s throne. Now in our Readers’ Theatre we heard the opinion that Peter had managed a lucky guess at the right answer. But in Matthew’s account of this event, Jesus says to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” In other words, Jesus tells us that Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah was not prompted by a mind set on merely human concerns. Flesh and blood, merely human concerns, did not reveal this truth to Peter. Nor did guesswork. Rather, this came from a mind that heard God, from a mind set on the things of God.
And yet, only a few moments later, Peter’s mind has done a complete flip. He now has in mind only things of merely human concern, and not the things of God. Peter, it seems, was given the mind of God, but it was something that he was able to lose rather quickly. Maintaining the mind of God, then, takes effort, takes discipline.
And isn’t that our own experience as well? Don’t we also know how quickly we can become so caught up in the concerns of the world, that we forget what we’ve learned from God only just a little while ago? Don’t we too know the experience of learning great truths from God on a Sunday, only to forget them in the day-to-day reality of Monday? Just like Peter, we can have the mind of God one moment, and be totally focussed on matters of merely human concern the next.
Well, actually, that last bit probably wasn’t entirely fair to Peter. There is nothing in the text to suggest that Peter had in mind things of what we might call the “secular world”. There’s nothing here to suggest that Peter was distracted by fishing, or paying taxes, or investing in wheat futures, or by the impact of the falling price of oil on his business or on the general economy. No. Actually, the merely human concerns that Peter has in mind here in this text, are about what we might actually call sacred matters. They’re all about the way Peter reads scripture and interprets what scripture implies about how God can and cannot bring about the promised salvation of Israel through his Christ, his Messiah, his champion. And the way Peter reads scripture, crucifixion of the Messiah falls on the impossible side of the ledger. God just can’t do it that way.
In order for Peter to keep his mind set on the things of God, he’s going to have to be prepared to let go of some of his human reasoning about what God can and cannot do. He is going to have to let God expand his appreciation of what is possible with God. He is going to have to be stretched beyond his imagination. Even if it means giving up some of his most cherished interpretations of scripture. And that’s not something that’s just going to happen without some significant effort, some significant discipline in listening hard to God, and some significant practice in trust. Because what Jesus says next in our gospel text demands much more of us than just intellectually accepting the idea of a crucified Messiah – it demands living into a totally upside down reality in which the first is last, and the last, first; and where seeking to save your own life is the very thing that will destroy you, while actually giving up your life will be the path to saving it. May I suggest that it’s not just the secular world that finds such ideas upside down, inside out, and impossible.
And of course, Peter’s not alone in finding the idea of a crucified Messiah to be an oxymoron – an impossibility from the very definition. The young Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, will have the same problem. It will be obvious to Saul that since scripture declares that “cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole” that no one who is crucified could ever be the Messiah, the one anointed and blessed of God – God obviously cannot bless and curse the same person. This will be so obvious to Saul that he will go to great lengths to persecute all those who proclaim such lunacy. That is, until he comes face to face with a tremendously expanded appreciation of the impossible things God actually can do.
And Saul, now called Paul, will find in Abraham the prototypical example of someone who lives before God not by a mind set solely on merely human concerns, or even a humanly reasonable interpretation of God’s own revealed truth, but by a humanly unreasonable faith in a God who promises the impossible.
Now it’s possible to read what Paul says about Abraham in Romans 4, particularly verses 18-22 as describing some kind of idealized, super-human faith that never has a single moment of doubt. After all, this is what he says:
18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, … 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—…—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.”
But if you’ve ever read the story of Abraham’s life as it’s recorded in Genesis chapters 12 through 24, you might wonder about this description of Abraham’s unwavering faith. After all, Genesis records a number of incidents in Abraham’s life that don’t really look to us like unwavering faith in God. For example, there are those two incidents where Abraham, fearing for his own life, decides to pass off Sarah as his sister, apparently without regard for her safety, and also without regard for the fulfillment of God’s promise to make him the father of many nations.
And, of course, we’d have to conclude from reading Genesis that Abraham often has a thoroughly human perspective on the means by which God can make good on his thoroughly improbable promise. For example, in Chapter 15, after his nephew Lot has left and settled in Sodom, Abram tells God that he’s thinking of making his chief servant, Eliezer of Damascus, his heir. God has to make it clear that Eliezer is not the heir of promise, but that Abram will have a son “from his own body”. Then in Chapter 16, Abram and Sarai decide that surrogacy must be the way to go, resulting in the birth of Ishmael through Hagar, and all the ensuing drama that that produces. But in Chapter 17, God comes back and tells Abraham that although God will indeed bless Ishmael, the heir of promise will not be Ishmael, but rather a son who will be born to Sarah herself – even though her womb has been long dead.
So is Paul just exaggerating here in Romans? Is he simply ignoring all these “feet of clay” incidents in Abraham’s life? I don’t think so. Paul is much too good an exegete for that. Notice that Paul says that Abraham was strengthened in his faith. Paul sees Abraham’s life, including all these things that look to us like stumbles and fumbles, as the means through which God is at work, producing in Abraham all that God had promised, including ultimately the faith that Abraham demonstrates fully in Chapter 22 – faith that is able to say confidently that “God Himself will provide.” Unwavering faith, then, is not so much something that Abraham begins with, but something which God develops in him through his life – through his coming to know God more and more for who he truly is.
And who is this God whom Abraham knows and trusts? Paul says he is the God who “raises the dead and calls into existence things that are not.” It’s important to note that in Paul’s Greek here, all three verbs are in the present active tense. There is not a past or a perfect tense to be found. That is, Paul is not talking primarily about trusting in the God who once raised the dead, or who once called into existence a world that previously did not exist, although those things are certainly true. Nor is Paul talking in the future tense, about trusting in the God who promises to raise the dead and to call into existence new heavens and a new earth some day at the end of the age, although that too is true. Rather Paul is after an even bigger idea. That’s why he uses a tense that ordinarily reflects a continuous, ongoing kind of action. In other words, the God in whom Abraham trusted, in whom Paul trusts, and in whom Paul invites us to trust, is the God whose ongoing character and habit is to raise the dead and call into existence things that are not. Such faith is not just the belief that God can do the impossible, but reliance upon the reality that God does do the impossible, that God does do things beyond our imagination, and He does them as a matter of course.
That’s the kind of faith that is needed to live into the reality that Jesus described. The upside down, inside out reality in which the first is last, and the last first. The reality in which trying to save our life will become its destruction, but in which giving up one’s life is the path to saving it. The reality that is often beyond our imagination.
It took Abraham a lifetime for this kind of unwavering faith to be developed. So it is entirely reasonable to expect that it may take us some effort and discipline as well. Sometimes, God calls us into the kind of impossible situation that demands that we either sink or swim – that demands we learn right now to trust in the God who does the impossible. But mostly, God offers us opportunities to learn such a faith while still in the relatively shallow end of the pool.
And that, I suggest, is just what Lent is – an opportunity for us to take up the challenge to grow into an unwavering faith. So this Lent, let us make it our aim to come to know and trust more and more the God who does the impossible, things that are totally beyond imagination – the God whose nature is to raise the dead and to call into existence things that are not. Even to the point of changing hearts and minds that were once set on merely human concerns into hearts and minds set on the things of God.
 This sermon presupposes the prior reading of Romans 4:13-25 and Mark 8:31-38.
 Matthew 16:17
 Deut. 21:23