by Rev. Scott Summerville

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34

In the Bible there is tragedy and there is comedy. If you were a man 99 years old, as in the case of Abraham, or if you were a woman 90 years old as in the case of Sarah and you got the word from the Lord that you were going to begin procreating, I suppose, depending on your perspective, that might be a comedy or tragedy. Personally, I would consider it to be a tragedy.

God’s surprise announcement to Sarah and Abraham and their willingness to leave their security and their homeland in their old age is the event of supreme importance in Jewish history and therefore in Christian history. The apostle Paul argues that the most important moment in Jewish history was not when Moses received the law on Mt. Sinai; it was the moment that Abraham and Sarah in their old age believe God that they would have a child in their old age and were bound to God in an everlasting covenant.

At first Sarah thought this whole thing was a joke. Sarah laughed at the idea that she would bear a child, and she also laughed at the idea that the old man was still up for his part of the job (Genesis 18) :

11] Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. [12] So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” [13] The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ [14] Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.” [15] But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

Yes, it was a bit of a comedy. Abraham actually falls down laughing:
(Genesis 17: 17) Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

So this momentous event in the history of Israel and the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faith, was at the same time a comedy. Sarah was very skeptical about the getting pregnant part, but she seems quite ready to have a good time with old Abraham. “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure? -why not?” Sarah does of course eventually give birth to Isaac and through Isaac and Rebekah shall come Jacob, and through Jacob and his wives shall come the twelve tribes of Israel.

This strange and curious pregnancy of Sarah in her old age is the linchpin, it is the essential beginning point of the whole story that follows, including the Gospels and the later faith of those who follow Jesus. Long after Abraham and Sarah there will come Moses and the kings and prophets of Israel, but at first there were these two, in their old age, becoming parents.

A historical footnote: in the Bible we are often told about great men and how old they were at their death. Sarah is the only woman whose age at her death is stated in the Bible, where we are told that she lived to the ripe old age of 127.

I had the pleasure of seeing the youngest member of our church family. When I saw her she was just two weeks old, she was sleeping when I visited. She was serene. She was in that placid godlike sleep that infants sleep when they are sleeping. There was the infant lying on her back in her little swinging sleeper, radiating all the stuff that infants radiate: wonder, unspeakable beauty, mystery…. all those things and more.

It’s a shame that the one time of life when you are truly and purely adored, when you have no faults that anyone can see, when you are the center of the universe, when you are the object that fierce and passionate love of your parents, and the adoring love of everyone else – it is a shame that you’re not really conscious of it. What’s more, when you have grown up, you will not be able to remember it.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic – you’re having a bad day at the office – or your teacher scolded you – you feel unappreciated – you just close you eyes and you remember exactly what it was like to be your infant self, at the center of the universe, bathed in unconditional adoration and love. Unfortunately none of us can remember that part of life, except somewhere in our bones and deep in our flesh we carry the memory of being held and soothed and loved and adored.

The reading today from the book of Genesis, the announcement of the child to be born to Sarah and Abraham, is joined with the gospel reading taken from the middle of the gospel of Mark. The reading comes halfway into Mark’s gospel, and it is the crux of the narrative of Mark’s gospel. It marks the point at which Jesus turns his attention to the journey to Jerusalem and begins to teach his disciples that in Jerusalem he will meet death on that Roman implement of torture, humiliation, and punishment: the cross.

The disciples are not at all happy with this teaching. He tells them that there is more, more than just his own suffering:

“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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

What a difficult teaching that is.
Whoever heard of taking up a cross?
A cross is a place you end up on if you are the most unfortunate person.
It is not the sort of thing you would want to take around with you.

Jesus had this way of playing with metaphors and images – this one is the most challenging. Take up your cross: I don’t think he meant a lapel pin cross
or one hung around the neck with a little diamond in it.

Suffering can be useless – the world is full of tragically useless suffering – but there can also be meaningful suffering; there can be suffering that we choose to endure for a greater purpose than our own personal pleasure.

On the way to Jerusalem and to the cross Jesus will encounter children. Mark’s gospel tells it this way:

(Mark, chapter 10) [13] And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. [14] But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. [15] Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Now isn’t this a fascinating thing: on the one hand Jesus teaches us tha those who follow him must be willing to pick up their cross. Whatever this means exactly for each individual follower, it cannot mean something easy or painless. It sounds like a supreme challenge.

At the same time those who follow him must – must – become like a child. What an interesting set of requirements Jesus sets before those who would follow him:

“Take up your cross and become like a child.”

I believe it is useful to hold these two things together. Our greatest teachers – our greatest saints – those whose lives inspire us most – are those who have great compassion – “compassion” is derived from the Greek words, com = with and pasxo = suffer, thus compassion is to suffer with another being. Our greatest teachers and saints have an extraordinary willingness to share in the sufferings of others. At the same time they have a childlike quality, a delight in life – a capacity for joy that does not make logical sense in terms of what they have endured.

Old Sarah an old Abraham are going to have a baby. The sounds of romance will be heard coming from their tent. They will know the fierce passionate love of parents for their children. And they will have a whole world of new troubles before their long lives are over.

Sarah and Abraham are going to have a baby – so anything at any age is possible.

That is the faith with which history of the Jews and the Christians begins – and the Muslims too.

And Jesus is going to the cross – that is a hard and heavy thing to know. Why is suffering so woven into everything in this world?

Jesus is still gathering followers, inviting people of any age to pick up their crosses, not to shy away from the pain that must come when one lives with purpose. At the same time he invites us to take up our cross, he invites us to become like children.

I suspect that Jesus himself was one who could bear enormous suffering and at the same time he could be a child – spontaneous and passionate, creative and curious, like a child.

So take up your cross and become like a child and follow him on the journey of liberation.

Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.