This year’s first readings during Lent are a journey through the covenantal history of God’s people. A covenant is a kind of binding promise that has certain expectations for everyone involved. Throughout the history of God’s people, when God makes a covenant, there are certain expectations—both for God and for God’s people. God promises to bless them, and they pledge their devotion to God, most notably by living according to the rules, commandments, and laws he has given them. And so this year during Lent, we hear over and over again how God renews his covenant with his people down through the generations, bringing us right to the foot of the cross, where God’s covenant with us is tested to the uttermost.
In the cross, in the death of Jesus, in the death of God at Calvary, the covenant transforms for us. It transforms from a covenant into a testament—a kind of bequest, or rather, a kind of gift given us upon the death of God. For in the cross, God accomplishes in the humanity of Jesus what we cannot do in our own humanity. God remains faithful even up to and beyond the point of death to the promise made to us. And God renews that promise, as he always does, in Jesus’ humanity so that we might come into the fullness of relationship with God as God first intended for us and for all creation. Christ on the cross transforms the nature of our relationship with God from one where are bound by rules, commandments, and laws, to one where we are bound by freedom, grace, and love—God’s freedom, grace, and love. And so instead of wondering how to please God, we can live secure in the knowledge that he loves us no matter—even beyond death. But what do we do with that knowledge? What do we do knowing that God will do everything and anything to be in relationship with us? Does it make a difference in our lives? How do we live free, gracious, and loving lives? Do we live free, gracious, and loving lives? Consider that as we go forward today…
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
You might not know it, but I can be a kind of bashful, shy person. Particularly when I’m in a situation where I’m surrounded by people I don’t know. In such circumstances, I tend to be more of a wallflower—preferring to sit along the side of the action, watching people. With time, though, as I get know people, I grow more comfortable because I know more about you, likely from watching you and listening to you interacting with other folks. As I get more comfortable with you, I’ll open up more and more, and soon I’m talking to you—maybe nonstop!
I love to talk. Anyone who is my friend knows that talking is fundamental to our relationship. I’d be hard pressed to think of a friendship with someone without talking. Friends communicate with each other. They share their lives with one another—in particular through conversation. Even in the experiences that friends share, conversation, talking with one another, is at the heart of it all. You might say that talking is a foundational part of a close relationship, of a close friendship. And the more that you talk with someone, the more that you share the details of your life with someone, the more comfortable you grow with them and the closer you become. It’s in this conversation that friendship is strengthened and deepens.
During this season of Lent, we are looking at the five acts of discipleship. Last week, we looked at the act of worship. This second week, we are looking at the act of prayer. Today’s first reading has us going back millennia, to the time even before the captivity of the Hebrews in Egypt—to the time of Abram in Canaan, before he’s renamed Abraham. We’re told that God speaks with Abram. This isn’t the first time that God spoke with Abram, though. Earlier, God told Abram that all the land that he saw before him, “northward and southward and eastward and westward,” would be given to him and his offspring forever. God also told Abram, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.” But the thing is, Abram didn’t have any children of his own, and so he’s worried about his legacy. He tells God that in his dream.
God doubles down on what he told him earlier, though, and shows Abram the stars of the night sky, and tells him, “Look toward heaven and count the stars,” adding a parenthetical commentary, which I find amusing—“If you are able to count them.” As someone given to my own parenthetical commentary in the midst of a conversation, I appreciate that God does the same thing when he’s talking! At any rate, God’s not done, and he tells Abram, having looked at the vast number of stars stretched across the sky, God then tells Abram, “So shall your descendants be.” God tells Abram, “Don’t worry, Eliezer won’t be your heir; a son from your body will be your heir. Look at the sky. Count the stars. Can you do it? Count your descendants! You’re going to have a big family!”
What happens next is what’s important for us, particularly as it deals with praying. When God spoke to Abram, when God reaffirmed what he had told Abram earlier about making his offspring like the dust of the earth, Abram believed God. Now—we’ve talked before about what this means. When we say that Abram believed God, when we say someone believes God, when say we believe God, we’re more than merely saying we accept something about God as true.
When we say we believe God, we are saying that we have a relationship with God and that relationship makes a difference in how we live our lives. Believing God is living faith. Or put another way, believing God is not merely accepting it as true that God loves us, but living our lives in an intimate relationship with God and that relationship makes a difference in how we live—from how we look at life, to how we treat other people, to how we think of ourselves, to how we approach and interact with everything in every aspect of our day-to-day lives. Believing God means living meaningfully and intentionally, thoughtfully and purposefully in the relationship that God has promised to have with us.
What happens here between God and Abram is a little different than the first time that God told Abram he’d have many descendants. This time, God makes a promise to Abram—he makes a covenant. God makes a promise to Abram that his descendants would possess the land he had told Abram of in their previous conversation. But this is more than God simply telling Abram he and his family after him are coming into some real estate. When God made this covenant with Abram, God pledges his special intention to be in special relationship with Abram. In effect, God promises to be Abram’s friend. This covenant bonded God and Abram, and all Abram’s children and descendants thereafter, in a special friendship—one that the people of God have clung too to this very day. This friendship is rooted in Abram believing God, in embracing the relationship that God had with him and acting like that relationship made a difference in his life. “Thus the scripture was fulfilled,” St. James writes, “that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it demonstrated his faith,’ and he was called the friend of God.”
Like any relationship, like any friendship, it is strengthened and grows in conversation. Just like in today’s reading, Abram trusted God enough to be honest with God about his fears, his concerns about what God had told him before. Abram talked with God, and God talked with him. This is most fundamentally a prayer…A conversation with God. And because we, descendants of Abram through the promise God made here, and then again through Moses, and then again through David, and again through the prophets, and ultimately extended to all peoples of the earth, including you and me, through God in the flesh himself in Jesus—because we are called friends of God through the promise of Jesus, God wants to have a conversation with us.
God wants us to talk with him. God wants to talk with us. Talking with God strengthens our relationship with him. It deepens the intimacy we have with him. When we talk with God, when we pray, we grow in how we look at life, in how we treat other people, in how we think of ourselves, in how we approach and interact with everything in every aspect of our day-to-day lives. Prayer, talking with God is the foundational part of a close relationship with God, of a close friendship with God. Prayer helps us to believe God more meaningfully and intentionally, to believe him more thoughtfully and purposefully, and so prayer helps us to live our lives more intimately in relationship with God, a relation that makes a difference in how we live. Without prayer, without talking to God our relationship with him cannot be all that it can be. In fact, a relationship with God without prayer, without conversation with God is inconceivable to the point of impossibility. We must pray, we must talk with God in order to believe him, to have a relationship with him, to be God’s friend.
In this season of Lent, as we journey with Jesus, who in John’s gospel calls his disciples and us who believe him no longer his servants but his friends—as we journey with Jesus onward to the cross, to the great revelation of God’s love for us, we do well to talk with God. However that looks—be it formally in written, prepared prayer; be it in free associated thoughts on a drive in the car or in the solitude of a hike in the woods; be it in the dark of the night when anxieties run deep and we find what to speak but only the concerns of our heart sighing too deep for words—we do well to talk with God. We do well to pray. We do well to turn to our friend, the one who talks with us and time and again tells us how much he loves us, who himself gave up everything to be in relationship with us, to be our closest friend—our Lord and our God. We do well to embrace and hold fast to our friendship with God and live our lives like that friendship makes a difference for us.
In this season of Lent, we do well to embrace our friendship with Jesus, with God himself, and talk with him, to take everything in our lives to him in prayer.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.