As I changed the falls, I thought about the last time they had been changed to purple – for the first Sunday of Advent. How different Advent is from Lent. Yes, it is a time for reflection, repentance and preparation too, but it is so much shorter, so much quicker.
To the annoyance of some, I like to linger as long as possible in Advent rather than slavishly following the diktats of the commercial world and letting Christmas start far too early, but even so, Advent is always a time of such busyness. Not so Lent, which seems to stretch out far into the future, demanding a slower pace, a more contemplative frame of mind.
There is something Lenten about Abram and Sarai. As we join their story, we find them in the autumn of life. No longer young and vigorous, their life is marked by a slower pace and by contemplation. They have much to look back on, much about which to be satisfied, but also disappointments too. Chief among them is the fact that they have had no children of their own. In desperation, Abram has had a child, Ishmael, with Hagar, Sarai’s servant. God had promised them children of their own, but none had been forthcoming. Each well into their nineties, it seemed unlikely now. But still there was the promise of God, and that doesn’t count for nothing.
Human reserves of patience and God’s own timetable really coincide harmoniously. Ishmael was the result of Abram’s impatience, and that, as we know is a sad story. But God does not leave things too late. Even at ninety-nine, God knew that it was not too late for Abram and Sarai. And in the space of a few verses, everything suddenly changes. Indeed, the future of Israel and ultimately of God’s church turn dramatically on what happens in this story we have read together this morning.
First, everyone is given a new name. For the first time, God calls himself “God Almighty”. It is a name which makes clear that the God who is addressing Abram is the God who made the heavens and the earth, the God of Genesis Chapter 1. It is a name, furthermore, which makes clear that this God is a god above all other gods, for at this time even the Hebrew people thought that there were other gods, gods associated with other tribes and peoples. This change of name is not an assertion of a new identity, but a reinforcing, a confirmation of an existing one. The new names given to Abram and Sarai are, however, both; both in an assertion of an existing identity and a giving of a new one.
Unlike the change of Jacob’s name to Israel, which is about leaving behind an old identity, and all the faults and offences of youth, the change from Abram to Abraham and from Sarai to Sarah speaks both of continuity and of a new beginning. There is continuity because God has already made his promise. There is newness because the promise, the covenant, is now being renewed. And it is also being extended. The earlier covenant with Abraham was primarily about land, about securing inheritance. Now it was a covenant - a promise by God to be always with Abraham and his offspring, for ever. It is a reflection of God’s covenant with the children of Israel, and through the children of Israel with the Church, and through the Church with each one of us. What we have read this morning is the promise which gives us the confidence to say that God is with us and to know that it is true. And it reaches far back before Abraham to the moment of creation and links us together with all that is, all that has been, and all that is yet to come. A child for Abraham and Sarah is the first fruit of this covenant, but the covenant does not depend on their faithfulness, or the faithfulness of any other. The surprising thing, the wonderful thing, is that God has willingly and irrevocably bound himself to people who persistently turn away from him. And even when we do, he will not renege on his covenant.
But I don’t want you to think, and I’m sure you don’t, that the nature of God’s covenant lets us off the hook to be or do anything we want. His faithfulness to us does not depend on our faithfulness to him, but faithfulness to God should be our response.
I think that that is what Jesus was getting at with his call to those who would follow him to deny themselves and take up their cross. It comes as quite a shock. It is a shock to us and it was a shock to the disciples. Up to this point, discipleship had been a big adventure – exciting new teaching, miraculous healings. But suddenly Jesus makes it clear that being a disciple is about more than following him, watching him, and listening to him. It is about more than being a Jesus fan. It has deep personal implications.
It is, fundamentally, about a new identity. We don’t change names, but the sacrament of baptism is bound up with the idea of naming, and it is not for nothing that we call our first name our ‘Christian name’. That speaks of us being named as disciples of Christ. That speaks of us being inheritors of the covenant made with Abraham. Even in the long, slow, darkness of Lent, and under the shadow of the cross, Christ’s cross and our cross, the promise made to Abraham remains. God is our God, and we are God’s people. This covenant can never be broken. Caught up in the grace of God’s covenant, we follow, in Christian discipleship, the one whose name is Emmanuel, God with us, and whose destiny is our destiny – the cross, the grave, and the resurrection to eternal life.