(Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-25)
31Then he began to teach them 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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But 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.”
34He 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those 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.”
There’s a story about a man who was sleeping at night in his cabin when suddenly his room filled with light and the Savior appeared. The Lord told the man he had work for him to do and showed him a large rock in front of his cabin. The Lord explained that the man was to push against the rock with all his might. This the man did, day after day. For many years he toiled from sun up to sun down, his shoulders set squarely against the cold, massive surface of the unmoving rock, pushing with all his might.
Each night the man returned to his cabin sore, and worn out, feeling that his whole day had been spent in vain. Seeing that the man was showing signs of discouragement, the Devil decided to enter the picture by placing thoughts into the man’s weary mind: “You have been pushing against that rock for a long time, and it hasn’t budged. Why kill yourself over this? You are never going to move it.” This gave the man the impression that the task was impossible and that he was a failure. These thoughts discouraged and disheartened the man.
“Why kill myself over this?” he thought. “I’ll just put in my time, giving just the minimum effort and that will be good enough.” And that is what he planned to do until one day he decided to make it a matter of prayer and take his troubled thoughts to the Lord. “Lord,” he said, “I have labored long and hard in your service, putting all my strength to do that which you have asked. Yet, after all this time, I have not even budged that rock by half a millimeter. What is wrong? Why am I failing?” The Lord responded compassionately, “My child, when I asked you to serve me and you accepted, I told you that your task was to push against the rock with all your strength, which you have done. Never once did I mention to you that I expected you to move it. Your task was to push. And now you come to me, with your strength spent, thinking that you have failed. But, is that really so? Look at yourself. Your arms are strong and muscled, your back sinew and brown, your hands are callused from constant pressure, and your legs have become massive and hard. Through opposition you have grown much and your abilities now surpass that which you used to have. Yet you haven’t moved the rock. But your calling was to be obedient and to push and to exercise your faith and trust in my wisdom. This you have done. I, my friend, will now move the rock.”
There’s also the story about a man’s daughter who had asked the local minister to come and pray with her father. When the minister arrived, he found the man lying in bed with his head propped up on two pillows. An empty chair sat beside his bed. The minister assumed that the old fellow had been informed of his visit. “I guess you were expecting me,” he said. “No, who are you?” said the father. The minister told him his name and then remarked, “I saw the empty chair and I figured you knew I was going to show up,” “Oh yeah, the chair,” said the bedridden man. “Would you mind closing the door?” Puzzled, the minister shut the door. “I have never told anyone this, not even my daughter,” said the man. “But all of my life I have never known how to pray. At church I used to hear the pastor talk about prayer, but it went right over my head. I abandoned any attempt at prayer,” the old man continued, “until one day, four years ago, my best friend said to me, ‘Johnny, prayer is just a simple matter of having a conversation with Jesus. Here is what I suggest: sit down in a chair; place an empty chair in front of you, and in faith see Jesus on the chair. It’s not spooky, because He promised, ‘I will be with you always.’ Then just speak to Him in the same way you’re doing with me right now.’”
“So, I tried it and I’ve liked it so much that I do it a couple of hours every day. I’m careful though. If my daughter saw me talking to an empty chair, she’d either have a nervous breakdown or send me off to the funny farm.” The minister was deeply moved by the story and encouraged the old man to continue on the journey. Then he prayed with him, anointed him with oil, and returned to the church. Two nights later the daughter called to tell the minister that her daddy had died that afternoon. “Did he die in peace?” the minister asked. “Yes. When I left the house about two o’clock, he called me over to his bedside, told me he loved me and kissed me on the cheek. When I got back from the store an hour later, I found him dead. But, there was something strange about his death. Apparently, just before Daddy died, he leaned over and rested his head on the chair beside the bed. What do you make of that?” The minister wiped a tear from his eye and said, “I wish we could all go like that.”
These two stories are helpful in illustrating the power of faith. The man in the first story dutifully obeyed the Lord’s request to push on the rock until the Devil came and planted seeds of doubt in his mind. Day after day, the man lived his life according to faith; faith that there was a purpose to his pushing on the rock. He didn’t question the absurdity of the task. He simply went about doing was asked of him and was content. The Devil got the man to question his contentment, to question the purpose of his task. The Lord explained that moving the rock was never the purpose of the man’s task. The purpose was to build the man up and make him strong for his life’s journey.
The man in the second story didn’t know how to have a relationship with God through prayer. He thought he needed to learn some special way to pray that would reveal God to him. Underlying this belief was a deep lack of faith; faith in a God that comes to us regardless of how we ask. The man needed that empty chair to help build up his faith. Like the rock in the first story, the chair served to build the man up and make him strong for life’s journey.
Both men lived purposeful lives when they lived according to faith. It was when they doubted that their lives seemed purposeless. Faith gives purpose to life. Perhaps more importantly, faith changes lives. Both men’s lives were changed through faith. And not only changed but changed for the better. Weren’t the lives of both men better when they lived through faith? Aren’t our lives better when we live through faith? We let God into our lives through faith and invariably our lives seem to run smoother and more productively. Why is that? Because God only wants the best for each of us. When we allow God to guide our lives, it’s only natural that our lives would be better. God loves us! God would do anything for us. All we have to do is ask. And when we ask, we show faith; faith in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God.
Look at the faith of Abraham. His faith was certainly not the ideal faith. He questioned and doubted God all the time! Yet he obeyed God. He obeyed God when told to leave his country and father’s house for distant lands. He obeyed God when told to circumcise all the men in his company. He obeyed God when told to bring his son, Isaac, to the land of Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice. Why was Abraham so obedient? Because he had faith in the covenant that God made with him. In our first lesson for today, God made a covenant with Abraham to make him “the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” God made a promise and Abraham believed in that promise. He believed God would make good on that promise and this faith led him to obedience. Indeed, God did make good on His promise, as God always makes good on His promises! Abraham doubted God at times. His illegitimate son, Ishmael, was the product of his doubt. He likely questioned why God had him offer up Isaac, his legitimate son, as a sacrifice. Wouldn’t killing his only legitimate son completely eliminate the chance of being “the ancestor of a multitude of nations?!” Doubt continually crept up in Abraham’s mind and yet he remained obedient and loyal to God’s commands. In the end, his faith brought him from being an old and heirless man to “the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” What a change for the better!
Jesus invoked this calling to a life of faith when he instructed the crowd and his disciples, “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.” A life of faith sometimes involves denying ourselves worldly pleasures. A life of faith sometimes involves living a hard life. A life of faith sometimes involves losing control of our lives. Faithful living is by no means an easy way of living. Jesus never claimed it would be. God never told Abraham it would be. But Jesus did say that those who lose their life will save it. Those who allow God into their lives and let Him guide their lives will live better lives. They will live lives with purpose and contentment. Maybe not easy lives but purposeful and content. Our lives of faith inevitably become lives of purpose.
While it’s helpful to lift up stories of faithful living like the stories earlier, it’s also helpful to learn the lessons of faithless living. Take the story of a mountain climber who, desperate to conquer the Mount Everest, initiated his climb after years of preparation. But he wanted the glory to himself so he went up alone. He started climbing and it was becoming later and later. He did not prepare for camping but decided to keep on going. Soon it got dark. Night fell with heaviness at a very high altitude. Visibility was zero. Everything was black. There was no moon, and the stars were covered by clouds. As he was climbing a ridge at about 100 meters from the top, he slipped and fell. Falling rapidly he could only see blotches of darkness that passed. He felt a terrible sensation of being sucked in by gravity. He kept falling and in those anguishing moments, good and bad memories passed through his mind. He thought certainly he would die.
But then he felt a jolt that almost tore him in half. Yes! Like any good mountain climber he had staked himself with a long rope tied to his waist. In those moments of stillness, suspended in the air he had no other choice but to shout: “HELP ME GOD. HELP ME!” All of a sudden he heard a deep voice from heaven. “What do you want me to do?” “SAVE ME.” “Do you REALLY think that I can save you?” “OF COURSE, MY GOD.” “Then cut the rope that is holding you up.” There was another moment of silence and stillness. The man just held tighter to the rope.
The rescue team says that the next day they found a frozen mountain climber hanging strongly to a rope…two feet off the ground.
As we walk our Lenten journey, let us listen to the wisdom of Jesus and honor the witness of Abraham. Let us live lives of faith and welcome the changes that come with such lives. God has a plan and wants only the best for each us. Let us go forth not only strong in mind and spirit but…strong in faith.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.