Preacher Prep: Second Sunday in Lent

The following is an excerpt from the Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary, available from

Second Sunday in Lent

The Lessons in Précis

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16. For a second time, God speaks to Abraham, extending the terms of God’s covenant with him. God renames both Abraham and Sarah as their lives are re-ordered by divine promise and grace. What is naturally impossible, God makes possible: Their great age will not deter the divine determination to make them parents of a people that will bless all nations.

Psalm 22:23-31. The psalmist begins in prayer and turns to the congregation in testimony, celebrating God’s faithfulness to the afflicted. The psalm is filled with active verbs: God hears, God delivers, God does not hide God’s face, God exercises dominion. This is a God whose compassion is backed up with the power to bring justice. Generations that have passed on, as well as those yet unborn, will join the living in praise of such a God.

Romans 4:13-25. Abraham’s inheritance and ours is by grace, through faith, insists Paul. The promise to Abraham, founded not on law-keeping but on faith, includes all—Jew or Gentile—who live by faith. To “hope against hope” as Abraham did means hoping not in whatever future may be extrapolated or strategized on the basis of present circumstances, but in the future promised by the God who “gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence” (v. 17).

Mark 8:31-38. Jesus tells his followers that the “Human One” will suffer, be killed, and yet be raised again. There is something of “Satan,” according to Jesus, in Peter’s resistance—a focus on strictly human concerns for self-protection, rather than divine things. The bar is raised for discipleship: denial of self, a cross taken up, life let go, lest in attempting to gain the world we lose God’s own purpose.

Theme Sentence

God changes destinies
. Names and destinies are changed by God’s trustworthy promises. What God promises is not gain as the world imagines it, but a lasting, heavenly inheritance. It is given by grace, claimed through hope, welcomed by faith.

A Key Theological Question

God changes destinies. If God is in control of our lives, does this mean everything that happens is somehow God’s will? This is one of the most controversial questions in Christian theology. Some theologians, including process theologians, insist that to say God wills or even knows everything that is going to happen to us is akin to causing it to happen. Others, including those following in the tradition of John Calvin, hold that God in some way knows and even wills everything that happens without determining everything that happens.

Whatever one’s take on the divine determinism, one thing is clear: God messes with histories as we know and expect them; God changes our plans, confounds our expectations, and staggers our imaginations; God alters lives, families, communities, and the very course of world events. Sometimes these changes are unwelcome, as in the case of Peter. Sometimes they are impossible, as in the case of Abraham and Sarah. And sometimes they are desperately sought after, as in the case of the psalmist.

It is not surprising that people have a variety of responses to God’s providential care. All responses are not, however, equally acceptable to God. Jonah, Moses, and Miriam, for example, are among the biblical figures who resist God’s plans for their lives and are disciplined by God until they respond appropriately. Abraham, Samuel, Rahab, and Mary are, on the other hand, praised for their faithful responses to what God has in mind.

Peter’s negative response is understandable, given the change in his plans required by Jesus. Peter seems to have imagined having the kind of power and authority aspired to in this world, standing alongside the powerful and authoritative Messiah. He knows his destiny, as Jesus’ disciple, is tied to the destiny of Jesus. No wonder, then, that he is averse to hearing about Jesus’ rejection and death!

Abraham and Sarah, in contrast to Peter, model the kind of faith the scriptures charge us to emulate. In one sense, we should concede, it is easier for them than for Peter. God changes their destiny in a way that is, in their view, more rather than less desirable. What God promises has presumably been the deepest dream of their hearts. In another sense, however, this change promised by God is very difficult to embrace. This is because, factually speaking, it is impossible. In Peter’s case, persecution is not desirable but is, certainly, imaginable. In Abraham and Sarah’s case, by contrast, being the parents of a great nation is desirable but completely unfathomable. What makes Abraham great is that he believes what is unbelievable, he hopes for what is impossible. He has faith, and for this reason is the exemplar of faith for all time. As Kierkegaard put it: “the one who believes what is possible is great, but the one who believes what is impossible—the one whose hope takes the form of madness—this one is the greatest of all” (Kierkegaard, 1983, pp. 36-37). Fortunately, Kierkegaard then asks (for all of us): “(But) who can be an Abraham?”

The writer of Psalm 22 seems to come close. Like Abraham and Sarah, he or she believes God will keep God’s promises and change her unfortunate destiny. Given how dire the psalmist’s situation, as it is described in verses 1-21, trusting in the deliverance of God is akin to an act of madness. The psalmist changes from one who is abandoned, mocked, dehydrated, and emaciated, to one who is rescued, strong-voiced, joyful, and prophetic. The change in the psalmist’s destiny is a change in his or her very person.

In this season of Lent, we may emphasize what Dietrich Bonhoeffer identifies as “the cost of discipleship” (Bonhoeffer, 1949). We, along with Peter, are charged to set to the side our expected destinies and enter into a completely different way of thinking about life and value. In contrast to the approach of this world, which tells us to protect ourselves by staying in good stead with those who have greater power and influence, Jesus teaches life can be saved only when we remain faithful to him and the gospel. The idea that we can somehow manage to please the powers of this world even as we follow Jesus to the cross is rejected out of hand; Jesus draws a sharp contrast between “divine things” and “human things” that should disturb all of us who devote significant energies to gaining greater status in the systems to which we ourselves contribute.

While Lent may be a time to set aside the earthly lives we have worked so hard to create and strengthen, it is also a time to claim the lives promised to us by God. With Abraham and Sarah, we are called to hope, again, for what we had given up as impossible; to trust that God will bring something new out of our barrenness; that God will bring life out of death. With the psalmist, we are given strength to rise up out of our brokenness in praise, as agents who teach, preach, and prophesy about the way God transforms destinies.

We receive again from Jesus the invitation to journey toward the cross, but always as life-loving people of faith who hold the destinies God promises in clear view. On the third day Jesus will rise, and soon Sarah will bear a son, and someday all the earth will turn to the Lord. And so we who rightly dread suffering; we who have commendably been caught up in our own prioritizing and schedules; we who are standing alongside Peter, and Abraham, and the psalmist: we are empowered, by the grace of God, to change our plans and come along.

A Pastoral Need

The psalm of the day, as well as the Genesis and Romans texts, anchor hope squarely in the reliability of God. Truly, Christian hope is neither self-generated optimism nor is it even hope in whatever possibilities we can extrapolate out of our present circumstances. God’s promises, insist these texts, ground genuinely Christian hope.

If their future followed the trajectory of the present, Abram and Sarai could only brace themselves for a childless future and no lasting legacy. Their wealth would be divided among household servants, and there their story would end. But God changes all that. Abram and Sarai together receive God’s renewed promise. God names them Abraham (“ancestor of a multitude”) and Sarah (“princess”)—names that signify their God-determined destiny, beyond all merely human calculation or possibility.

Christian hope is not whistling in the dark. On the other hand, it is not a blustering overconfidence that God will grant us every wish, that we will be exempt from tragedy, or that we are immune to loss or frustration. Christian hope is the assurance that—caught up in the current of God’s redemptive purposes—nothing is wasted. God endows our lives with direction and lasting value. Christian history offers many examples of disciples whose lives were marked by hardship, but who lived in the confidence of the children of God. They trusted God to gather up all things and bring them home to the life that is truly life.

Ethical Implications

Today’s texts are realistic. Every one of them locates us squarely in the tension that all but defines Christian discipleship and is the deep drumbeat of the Lenten season: We look to the horizon of the promises of God, even as we grapple with a disillusioning present, sometimes marked with conflict, loss, and sorrow.

These texts offer two distinct perspectives on discipleship. First, being caught up in the pursuit of God’s just and redemptive purposes means holding onto our lives and fortunes with a light touch. Jesus teaches that would-be followers who are bent first and foremost on self-protection and self-promotion may gain the world—but in the end lose their souls. Jesus’ lack of concern for self-preservation and self-assertion baffled his closest followers. How could anyone so endowed with divine power possibly lose? It was inconceivable to the disciples that absorbing violence and undergoing death might be precisely Jesus’ path to victory. The fact that death is not ultimate for Christians allows them to risk all for righteousness’ sake, as the lives of countless martyrs attest.

Second, these texts point to an ethic of patience and persistence in the face of difficulty. Jesus’ teaches his followers to expect a difficult and costly road. Following him in a witness that challenges what is death-dealing and justice-denying, we will find ourselves grappling with intransigent powers. God’s purposes stretch over many lifetimes toward a horizon we see by faith, and toward which we live, trusting the God “who gives life to the dead” (Rom 4:17).

Gospel Implications

Trusting in the God who, as Paul declares, “gives life to the dead” connects our faith and hope with the faith and hope of Jesus expressed in today’s Gospel text. Jesus perceives far ahead of the final Jerusalem confrontation that if he pursues fidelity to the purposes of God amid the competing interests of Jewish synagogue and Roman authority, he can expect rejection and, ultimately, death. Yet, all the Gospel writers insist that Jesus trusted that God would not abandon him to the grave.

The ideas of self-denial and cross-bearing have been much-abused and too often trivialized. Whittling down self-denial to self-imposed “hardships” like no chocolate or beer for Lent can amount to a kind of magical thinking: “Maybe if I voluntarily give up these little luxuries, God will be impressed enough not to put me to any real tests!” The value of Lenten disciplines is that they can help us examine and redirect our lives. Volunteering at a local homeless shelter when we’d ordinarily be sitting at home with a cocktail in front of the TV set helps us rethink our habit and redirect our energies.

Taking up a cross means actively embracing the redemptive purposes of God, particularly in ways that put us at risk of censure. It is risky to challenge policies that protect the powerful and deny basic services to the poor, or to examine ways our churches make some races and classes more welcome than others. Yet it is in such risky living, in Jesus’ name, that we gain our souls.


Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, eds. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R. H. Fuller (New York: Macmillan, 1949).

About the Authors

Sally A. Brown

Sally A. Brown is the Elizabeth M. Engle Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Princeton Theological Seminary read more…

Cynthia L. Rigby

Cynthia L. Rigby is the W. C. Brown Professor of Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. read more…
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