Sermon: What does God want from us? (2 Lent, Year C)
2nd Sunday in Lent (RCL Year C)
St. James Episcopal Cathedral, Fresno, CA
Collect: O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
“What does God want from us?”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God.
What does God want from us? Sometimes it seems like God is too mysterious and terrifying. Like we’ll never be able to live up to all the expectations. Like we’ll fail at our Lenten fast and fall short of God’s will. Like we won’t be judged worthy in the end. Like even if we knew what it was that God wanted from us, we wouldn’t be able to do it. The problems in the world are so big. The problems in our lives are so big. I wake up almost every day still tired from…everything. We are all trying so hard, and it seems like it’s not enough.. What more does God want from us? Can I stop wars? Can I end the pandemic? Can I make rain fall?
Or like Abram, who does a childless man leave his legacy to? What does God want from Abram, that he adopts his steward Eliezer so that guy can inherit God’s promises? I’m with Abram here, how is this great reward going to work? What God says is grander than I think anyone can really imagine. That Abram should count the stars if he can, because that’s how many descendants he will have. Abram’s legacy is going to be bigger than he can imagine. What does God want from Abram? What are the conditions of this promise? Abram believed God, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness. God counts it as righteousness that Abram trusted God’s promise. God wants Abram’s trust.
In the second half of this scene, there’s a sort of terrifying animal sacrifice and fiery covenant thing happening. Abram cuts animals in half, which was a covenant ritual. Those who made a covenant would walk between the halves of the animal, promising that if they did not uphold the conditions of the covenant, they would be torn to pieces like the animals. The carrion birds swooping down were another symbol of what would happen to those who broke the covenant. But it’s not Abram who passes between the covenant animals. It is the presence of God in the form of a flaming pot and torch that passes through the animals. God makes the covenant, promising descendants and an inheritance of land to Abram. This was a one-sided covenant, called a covenant of grant. One where the greater power granted something as a reward for loyalty. Abram was loyal to God. Abram believed God and that was counted as righteousness. Abram trusted God. What are the conditions of the promise? What does God want from Abram? God just wants his trust.
What does God want from *us*? “Join in imitating me,” Paul says in Philippians. What does imitating someone do? It makes us look and act more like that person. It forms us in their image. When we imitate our heroes, we become more heroic. When we imitate our peers, when we conform to peer pressure, we become more like our peers. Paul says that God wants us to be citizens of heaven. That God does not want us to be concerned with worldly pleasures but to look for the transformation of our humble earthly bodies into glorious heavenly ones. Paul says that we are to be conformed to the model of Jesus’s glorious spiritual body. When we are citizens of heaven, conforming to peer pressure means being conformed to the body of Christ. What does God want from us? God wants us to become like Jesus.
Jesus in our gospel reading today is more than a little enigmatic, though. Each sentence seems to be about something different. The Pharisees have come to Jesus to warn him that the king wants to kill him. Jesus responds with an insult towards Herod and some words in the great tradition of Biblical prophets stirring up anger through harsh and bitter criticism. It’s hard to tell in this gospel reading whether the Pharisees were for or against Jesus, but there’s nothing here to say that the Pharisees were also trying to kill Jesus. What does Jesus want from them? Does he not want them to warn him? Jesus wants the Pharisees and Herod to leave him alone so he can get on with his work. If I would have been listening to Jesus in the moment with the Pharisees, I would not have understood the whole “on the 3rd day I finish my work” part, but we know how this story plays out. Jesus isn’t in Jerusalem yet, but once he is, once this prophecy comes to pass, once Jesus is crucified, died, and buried, then on the 3rd day he will finish his work. Then on the 3rd day he will rise again.
What does Jesus want? Jesus wants to finish his work. What does God want from us in this story? I think it’s the same as with Abram: God wants our trust. Our trust that Jesus’s work is finished. There’s no condition on the promise; we do not do anything to complete the work of Jesus. God just wants our trust.
I wonder if instead of asking what God wants from us, we could ask what God wants *for* us. What does God want for us? God wants for Abram to father a great nation through his own issue. A nation from his own body. God wants that nation to outnumber the stars and be spread throughout the promised land. God wants for Paul’s heavenly citizenship to be granted to each of us. God wants all of us to be free from worldly concerns. There’s no nation on earth, no worldly citizenship, that compares to the glory of heaven. God wants for each of our humble bodies to be conformed to the glorious body of Christ.
What does Jesus want for us? Jesus says he wants to gather us up like a mother hen and protect us like she protects her chicks under her wings. Jesus wants for us to be protected with all the fierceness of a mother protecting her children with her own body. What does God want for us? God wants us to be safe and whole. The psalmist today says “For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter; *he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling and set me high upon a rock. 8 Even now he lifts up my head *” What does God want for us? When wars come, when we face enemies daily, when everyone else seems to have forsaken us, God sustains us. When we are scattered and broken in our arguments and division, God gathers us in under the wings of a protective mother hen. That scattered nation of Abram’s promised children is gathered in. Our broken earthly nations are transformed into heavenly citizenship. We are conformed to the glory of the body of Christ. But these aren’t things that *we* can accomplish.
God does not want these things from us. God wants these things for us. Jesus’s work has already been finished. Through the work of Jesus, we are gathered into the one heavenly body of Christ. That’s what we trust. That’s what we believe. It’s the mystery of faith that we proclaim in the eucharist. The memorial we celebrate with a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving was accomplished through the work of Jesus. Jesus gathers God’s children into the protection of his body like a mother protecting her chicks. That is what God wants for us. Amen.