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Laughing; Scoffing; Prescriptive Prayers

The Second Sunday in Lent, 25 February 2024

Megan Preston Meyer
Megan Preston Meyer

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

Here we have Abraham. Abraham is, quoting Paul, “about a hundred years old.” Sarah, his wife, is ninety, and has been written off as barren. And then God appears to Abraham and announces that he will be the ‘ancestor of multitudes of nations’, because Sarah will give him a son, and give rise to ‘kings of people’.

God announces all this… and what do they do?

They laugh.

Our reading ends at verse 16, and verse 17 says, ‘Abraham fell on his face and laughed.’ Sarah laughs, too, in the next chapter.

In this situation, laughing is understandable. Abraham heard something that surprised him, that was not what he was expecting, that didn’t make sense… So he laughed. I imagine it as sort of a bemused laugh, a snort of surprise, with a confused look on his face. But here’s the thing—Abraham laughed, he didn’t scoff. 

Scoffing would indicate disbelief… distrust. Abraham probably didn’t think what God had told him made sense, and I’m sure he was wondering how, exactly, it was going to work, but he didn’t disbelieve. And you may have noticed that there’s a gap in what we read this morning: We had verses 1 through 7, and then verses 15 and 16. Those verses we skipped, verses 8 – 14, talk about circumcision. That was to be the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and his offspring.

I bet that didn’t clear things up a lot for him.

None of this made sense—the initial announcement about becoming an ancestor to multitudes at their age, the mechanism through which those multitudes were supposed to keep up their end of the bargain… None of this was intuitive.

God’s ways are not intuitive.

 All things considered, though, Abraham didn’t have it too bad in terms of intuitiveness. Moses, when he was told to take the Israelites out of Egypt, probably didn’t expect locusts and frogs and being able to walk through a parted sea. Jonah probably didn’t expect a giant fish to save him from an un-parted sea.

And that’s before we even get to the New Testament… The Messiah, the savior of the world, being begotten, not made, and inserted into the middle of an otherwise average working-class family? With a couple of cryptic messages and then basically radio silence for thirty years? I bet Mary and Joseph didn’t expect that, even after their Annunciation.

And if we’re talking about unintuitive, if you were designing the means of universal salvation and everlasting life, would you have come up with this? With any of this? With the crucifixion? With Christ?

I certainly wouldn’t have. I would have put together a nice PowerPoint, probably with a bar chart and an Action Plan, with some clear, logical, step-by-step process. I would not have come up with a man—the Son of Man, who is also the Son of God—who had to undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

That would not have been in my Action Plan.

God’s ways are not intuitive.

Peter obviously didn’t think so, either. In our Gospel reading, he took Jesus aside and tried to talk some sense into him. “You can’t undergo suffering and be killed,” he may have said. “We need you.” (I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t even touch the rise-again-after-three-days thing.)

Peter had just, two verses earlier, before our reading starts, answered “You are the Messiah,” when Jesus asked “Who do you say that I am?” He had just figured out what was going on—that Jesus, the Chosen One, had come to save the Jews—and I’m sure he had some preconceived notions of what that was going to look like. He probably also had some preconceived notions of what it was going to look like for him, as one of Messiah’s inner circle. And then here comes this explanation of what was really going to happen, how salvation was actually going to work, that did not conform to his expectations at all, and that was absolutely not intuitive.

So Peter scoffed.

He did what a lot of us do when we’re faced with something that seems illogical; he tried to impose logic. He wanted to stop what he perceived as craziness from Jesus and turn it into something that made sense to him… and to us. From our human perspective, which more often than not, isn’t wide enough to see all the angles.

But Jesus rebukes him: You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

What human things do we set our minds on? And what do miss when we do?

I think most of us like logic. We like things that we understand, things that follow a pattern, things that we can explain and predict and control. We are good at solving problems when we can lay out our assumptions logically, create an action plan, and then work through it step by step. That usually brings us success in human things, so it’s tempting to port that over into the realm of divine things, too.

There’s an old joke about a guy sitting on his front porch, praying, in a rainstorm. A police officer drives up and yells from the police car that a flood is coming, and that the man should evacuate immediately and come with him. “No,” says the man. “The Lord will save me.”

He keeps praying on the porch, and as the waters come up the front steps, a boat comes by. “Jump in", says the boat guy. “No,” says the man. “The Lord will save me.”

The waters keep rising, the porch washes away, and the man climbs onto his roof, still praying. As the waters come up to the gutters, a helicopter flies by and dangles a rope. “Grab on,” says the helicopter guy. “No,” says the man. “The Lord will save me.”

The waters keep rising, the house is swept away, and the man drowns. He gets up to heaven, collects his harp and his cloud, and then the Lord comes by to see how’s he’s settling in. “Settling in…” the man scoffs. “I’m settling in just fine, I guess… but why didn’t you save me?”

“What do you mean?” says the Lord. “I sent you a police car, a boat and a helicopter.”

The man had his idea of what being saved was going to look like, and when the actual mechanism differed from what he had in mind, he missed it.

His mistake, I think, was specifying the process in his prayer, instead of the outcome.

This is a trap we can all fall into. We pray for a particular person to love us when what we really want is love, we pray for one politician over another when what we really want is hope, we pray for victory for our chosen side when what we really want is peace. We make our prayers so prescriptive—we get so focused on the means—that we may not even consciously recognize the end that we desire. When we’re so hyper-focused on what we think is the way forward—on the logical, intuitive, human path—we can forget where the path is heading… and then we risk going astray.

The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

What Jesus described wasn’t logical. It wasn’t intuitive. More than that—it was hard.

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Peter—Simon Peter—couldn’t make sense of this, at least not in the moment. So, instead of denying himself, he denies Jesus—three times—because his mind is on human things, not divine things. Simon of Cyrene takes up Jesus’ cross, instead, and carries it to Golgotha… because Peter isn’t there. He’s gone astray. And if Peter goes astray, because his mind is on human things, what hope do any of us have?

Luckily, a lot.

The Collect for this morning asks God to be gracious to those who go astray, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to the unchangeable truth of his Word. And God is gracious. He was with Peter. He did come around after going astray; depending on which Gospel you’re reading, he was the first apostle, after the women, to go into Jesus’ tomb. He realized that Jesus had been resurrected, had risen on the third day, just like he said he would (which, again, is not intuitive) …and this time, Peter gets it. His mind is on divine things—and  ours can be, too.

So here’s a bit of homework: When you pray this week, pay attention to how you’re praying. Are you asking for an outcome, or are you specifying a process? Are you giving God room to grant your prayer? Are you leaving space for the Divine to supersede the human?

The more space we leave, the better, because that gives us an openness, too. An openness to recognize the way in which God is responding, even if—especially if—it isn’t intuitive.

The way God works might not always make sense to us immediately, but like Abraham, it’s okay to laugh. It’s even, like Peter, okay to take a bit of time to get used to what He’s leading us to do. The important thing is not to scoff—to be open and trusting and willing enough to put human things aside, and to follow Christ.