Today’s readings open a window onto the nature of divine love and the promise of God's faithfulness. We are reminded first of all that God calls people at any age and any stage of life; that God takes the long view of where it is all going, and that much is asked of us if we are to follow the path of the covenant that God established with Abraham and Sarah.

As Karl Barth reminds us, God’s covenant with Abraham is the restitution; the resumption of a relationship which existed at the beginning of creation. This original relationship was ruptured, interrupted, and is now reconstructed at the initiative of God who freely chooses to enter into a covenant relationship with Israel. This will be a binding relation where God promises that “You will be my people and I will be your God.”

The word covenant translates the Hebrew word berith, the root of which means to eat with, signifying mutual obligation, or to allot which signifies a gracious disposition. In this context, berith has to do with the promise, blessing, commandment, and freedom given to Israel by God. Abraham and Sarah are divinely appointed partners in God's covenant of grace. God tells Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation, as many as the stars in the sky.

Now this is all well and good but in today’s reading from Genesis, 24 years have passed since Abram first heard the promise. He is now 99 years old, listening to God repeat the promise for the third time. What have Abram and Sarai been doing during these 24 years? they've been learning to trust God without knowing for sure how things are going to turn out. Abram does not know of course that from that his lineage the prophecy of Isaiah will be fulfilled in Jesus the suffering servant.

This trust has led them to leave their home in Haran with no map to guide them and to follow wherever God might would lead them. Their trust has wavered: not completely trusting the promise; Abram fathers a child with the slave woman Haggar. And yet they have continued to be in relationship with God and with one another.  In the years to come, three distinct religions emerge from God’s promise to Abram: Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and all three will come to know themselves as God’s chosen people.

In today's story, God renews the promise for the third time: The first two times focused on what God would do for Abram and Sarai, the third time that the promise is given, the focus is on what Abram and Sarai and their descendants will do for God. This is marked by God giving them new names. They will now be called Abraham and Sarah. Sarah is now 90 and Abram is 99. Abraham and Sarah have no say in this, they do not choose their new names, they do not choose the uncertain path before them. They are called to trust that God will lead them along the right path.

During Lent, we are driven like Jesus into the wilderness to examine the nature of our own relationship with God. While Lent focuses on the example of Jesus, Jesus himself focuses on the example of Abraham. Like his ancestor in faith, Jesus walks towards God's promise with steady trust. In the Gospel last week, we learn that as Jesus emerged from the waters of his baptism, he heard the words “You are my son the beloved, with you I am well pleased”.  Jesus went into the wilderness knowing that he was “beloved” and in knowing this, he was able to learn, in the wilderness, the true nature of his vocation.

Frederick Beuchner suggests that after his baptism, Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness asking himself what it means to be Jesus, and that during Lent, Christians consider what is being asked of us as disciples of Jesus. But before we can understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, we must understand what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah.

Jesus as a suffering and dying Messiah was not what anyone was expecting, and yet, in Mark’s Gospel today, this is what Jesus begins to teach his disciples. Jesus is very clear that his destiny includes great suffering and this is something that they don’t want to hear.  Peter, who has just finished confessing Jesus to be to be the Messiah, now rebukes Jesus and refuses to accept what Jesus is telling them. Jesus could not have chosen a more vivid image. In first century Palestine, the cross meant one thing: a cruel, tortuous death for anyone who threatened Caesar's authority. This is not what the disciples wanted to hear and it is not what we want to hear…not really.

In verse 34, Jesus speaks to the crowd as well as his disciples telling them (and us) that if we would be his disciples, we must deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. In other words, to deny the tyranny of “self”. Note that Jesus asks us to carry our cross, not his! Sister Mary Coleman, my high school principal, used to tell us that we don’t need to go looking for our crosses in life: they will find us, and we will know what we have to do to carry them. But here’s the problem: as long it is all about “me,” we will always be seeking painless shortcuts to the kingdom; we will try to substitute other ways for the way of the cross. Only when we are finally willing to accept Jesus for who he is: the suffering one who lays down his life for others, will we understand who we are and what we are called to be.

Jesus’s words seem harsh and extreme. Surely the Messiah is supposed to offer security and protection. He is supposed to be a worldly King, not a suffering servant. Peter is learning that faith in Jesus is not about the elimination of risks, the preservation of life, or about worldly success. Instead, Jesus asks us to risk it all and relinquish control to God. Which is exactly what Jesus is doing and what he also asks of us.

The way of the cross reminds us that our life is not our own. It belongs to God. It reminds us that we are not in control – God is. Our life is not about us, it is about God, and there is great freedom in knowing this. We are free to be fully alive as a part of God’s plan for all of humanity. Paradoxically, in losing our life we find it; our falling down becomes rising up, and death is transformed by resurrection.

As long as our lives are centered on ourselves, we will continue to exercise power over others, try to save ourselves, control our circumstances and like Peter, maybe even rebuke Jesus. Jesus rarely exercised power over others or tried to control circumstances. He simply made different choices: to love in a world that hates, to heal in a world that hurts, and to give in a world that takes. Self denial is not about being out of control or powerless. It is about the choices we make. It is about being who we were created to be.

We are currently navigating a global wilderness that continues to confront us with ourselves, our illusions, our strengths, our weaknesses and our possibilities. Our lives, our systems, even our way of being church, are being transformed. We are not in control of what is happening but we are always in control of our response. Although we feel keenly the separation and limitations that are currently imposed upon us, we do not navigate the wilderness alone. We travel with God and we travel with each other. We remind ourselves today that we are God’s beloved. We do not need a map for the journey, because God knows where we are going, Jesus shows us the way, and the Spirit empowers our active response.