Eyes on the Prize

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

February 28, 2021
2nd Sunday in Lent
Scripture readings – Genesis 17: 1-7,15-16 and Mark 8:31-38

In the days following the end of World War II, Americans of all kinds returned from the business of war and got back to normal.  Or at least some of them did…

For people of color, for women, for the poor, getting back to “normal” wasn’t quite going to cut it for them.  They had worked very hard and had served their country well, but when they tried to change whatever they didn’t like in their lives – opportunities for better jobs, education, housing, and representation in government – they found the same old structures were quickly back in place.  This would not do.

Various groups with widely various agendas began to work to bring about change.  Unfortunately, as everyone knows, systemic change happens very, VERY slowly.  You can change laws, but changing hearts takes longer.  You can change leaders, but they must have the courage and the support to affect real change.  You can change opportunities – at least on paper, but giving a truly fair shake takes hearts that are open to what those changes might resemble.

Through it all, lives were lost, reputations were built and destroyed, changes were initiated but resistance also dug in deep.  Things were changing – everyone could see that – but those changes were incremental.

Still, “keep your eyes on the prize” would be a good phrase to describe what was going on in the hearts and minds of those who were dreaming of a better day.  If small changes could be achieved today, perhaps the ultimate prize of big, systemic changes could be achieved too.

Yet we all know that radical changes often encounter the following reactions:

  1. “I don’t want to hear it.”
  2. “I don’t understand it.”
  3. “I’m NOT doing that.”
  4. “Okay…I accept it.”

In today’s Scripture readings, we have two momentous changes in the lives of the people of God that were presented; although the changes were very, VERY different from one another, the reactions followed the pattern of resistance that was just described.

First, we have the covenant between Abram and the Lord God.  Up to this point, the relationship between Abram and God seemed to be working well.  God called Abram to be the father of his people, the beginning of a great nation.  Abram answered God by doing as he was told.  He took his entire family and their entire lives and moved to Canaan.  Later, he went to Egypt during a famine, rescued his brother, Lot, and fathered his son, Ishmael, with his wife’s handmaiden.  We see nothing here that indicated anything would change from how things began: God called Abram and Abram faithfully answered.  

Then the BIG CHANGE comes along: God repeated that Abram would be the father of a great nation, but it won’t happen through his wife’s servant’s son, Ishmael; instead, it would come through his own son that his old wife, Sarai, would conceive and give birth to.  Furthermore, just to mark the changes, both of them would receive new names: Abram would now be called “the father of many” or Abraham; Sarai would now be called “the mother of nations” or Sarah.

Now we have the reactions:

  1. “I don’t want to hear it.”  Abraham’s reaction was more of “I don’t want to hear such a crazy thing!” because he fell down on the ground and started laughing.  Not sure that’s the best approach when dealing with the Lord God. 
  2. “I don’t understand it.”  Abraham and Sarah both couldn’t understand how an elderly woman like Sarah could possibly conceive and give birth to a child; for all the years they had been together, she had been unable to conceive.  It was assumed that she was barren; how could it be otherwise?  Now in her old age, she was going to have her own son?  They just plain didn’t understand!
  3. “I’m NOT doing that.”  In the very next chapter of Genesis, we have the Lord visiting Abraham and Sarah disguised as a traveler.  Once he is given the traditional hospitality that was expected at that time, this traveler in disguise stated that when he returned next year, Sarah would have a child.  Once again Sarah laughed at the idea, but this time she was confronted with her reaction by the traveler.  Note that in neither passage about this part of God’s promise was there any evidence that Abraham and Sarah accepted what they had been told; in fact, the textual evidence points to both of them simply telling themselves and each other, “I’m NOT doing that.”  It was too hard for them to believe…at least until the unbelievable proof began to grow within Sarah in a few weeks.
  4. “Okay…I accept it.”  Now we skip forward four brief chapters in Genesis and we have the birth of Isaac, the child God promised to Abraham and Sarah.  Now both of them are laughing for joy and praising God for this miracle in their lives.  “Okay…I accept it” is now an understatement!  They loved this child!  They celebrated his appearance in their lives.  They worshiped God for blessing them both with this gift.

And now we are left to wonder: what if Abraham and Sarah had accepted God’s word in the first place?  They could have avoided long periods of doubt and embarrassment.  They could have joyfully anticipated what God had promised would come to fruition.  They could have replaced their stubborn doubt with stubborn faith and kept their eyes on the prize that God had promised them.  Instead, they needed proof…which they eventually got.

Next, we turn to the New Testament and that uncomfortably familiar story of Peter rebuking Jesus for predicting his betrayal, crucifixion, and death.  And we have Jesus telling his boldest Apostle that phrase that all of us know by heart: “Get thee behind me, Satan!”

Jesus, for the first time, spoke bluntly and plainly about what was going to happen to him.  For the Apostles who had already sacrificed everything they had to follow him, this was too much.  And their reactions, spoken by Peter, followed the same pattern we heard before:

  1. “I don’t want to hear it.”  Peter had just identified correctly that Jesus was the Messiah; he had actually said those words aloud.  After all they had seen and experienced, we have no clue as to whether or not Peter was the only one to understand this, but he was certainly the one to say it first.  And now Jesus was saying that Messiah Peter had just identified was going to suffer and die a horrible death…NOT lead them into a new nation of Israel.  Small wonder that Peter began to rebuke his Master, the man he trusted, followed and loved.  Peter didn’t WANT to believe this could be true!
  2. “I don’t understand it.”  Upon hearing Peter’s reaction, Jesus rebuked him instead with terms so harsh that they had to embarrass Peter and the other Apostles as well.  Then, when they were listening again, Jesus called in the crowd so that he had additional witnesses.  He gave one more lesson that day to help them understand that to serve sometimes meant giving one’s life; Jesus certainly used an uncomfortable example to bring home the point: taking up one’s own cross.
  3. “I’m NOT doing that.”  No matter how gifted a teacher and speaker Jesus was, there is no way his message was accepted by every single member of that audience on that day.  We have the benefit of hindsight; we know what is going to happen, we know the end of the story.  We might even be tempted to say to ourselves, “If I had been there, I would have believed.” Perhaps…but we were NOT there, and we would not have had the insight to understand what Jesus was saying either.  At this point, his Apostles had been with him for a long time; if they struggled with this part of the call of discipleship, it stands to reason that all of us would have too.
  4. “Okay…I accept it.”  No, they didn’t.  They didn’t accept what Jesus told them.  Even as he was arrested in the garden, even as he was tried before Pilate, even as he was hanging on the cross, even as he was dying in front of his own mother, even then…they didn’t accept it.  They were a broken, frightened bunch of followers who grieved for the loss of their beloved leader.  They were not waiting in prayer and expectation for the third day after the crucifixion to arrive so they could greet their resurrected Master.  They didn’t accept it at all…until after they had the proof of Jesus standing before them with the holes in his hands and feet and his side pierced.  They didn’t accept it when he breathed on them.  They didn’t accept it when he cooked them fish on the banks of the Sea of Galilee while they were fishing.  They didn’t accept it because it was too wonderful and too amazing for them to do so.  Jesus was the Messiah and Jesus was alive!  They didn’t keep their eyes on the prize either; they imagined they understood what that prize was going to be, but they were mistaken.

You may now think neither of these Scripture readings pertain to you.  You may put yourselves in those biblical settings and declare that you would behave differently if you were there.

Again, perhaps.  But we do have the benefit of knowing how both those stories come out.  We do know the ending.

What we don’t entirely know is our own endings.  We try to be faithful, we fall short sometimes, we confess our sins and failures to act, and we try again.  We hope for the promise of salvation, grace, and forgiveness that is promised for all.

And we still doubt…just like Abram and Sarai…just like Peter… just like us.

Our goal might be to care for our families, to do our best in our work, to make a difference in this world.  We may fail and do so badly or triumphantly in this world.  That doesn’t mean we have truly failed.

Because our eyes should always be on the prize of the promise of Heaven.  

That is what God was establishing with Abraham as the father of the nation of God’s people.

That is what Peter failed to understand early in the life, work, and ministry of his Master, Jesus Christ.  But he certainly got it later.

That is what all of us should remain focused on: no matter our work here, we are trying for the Kingdom of Heaven in all we say, do, and think.  

If we dream it, if we serve, if we obey, we can achieve that prize of being with the Lord someday.