I am El Shaddai… I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous… You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations…
And with these words from the beginning of Genesis 17, God again repeats and reminds Abram of his promise and of the covenant. This is not the first time Abram had heard this promise. The first time was in chapter 12 and this will continue for a while. The years pass, Abram and Sarai get older and older, God repeats the promise and they continue on. I can almost imagine Abram quietly rolling his eyes and thinking, “yeah, yeah, promises, promises!” It is obvious that Abram and Sarai (as they are named at first) doubt this promise. Abram says all the right things to God, but then his actions betray a lack of confidence in God’s promise. And then there is the laughter. Abraham laughs at the notion that he and Sarah were going to have children in verse 17 and then in chapter 18 – yet another repeat of the promise, this time by a couple of messengers (angels) – Sarah laughs (18:12ff – pew bible OT p. 11). The actions and the laughter make it clear that Abraham and Sarah simply do not really believe the promise. And who can blame them? It doesn’t make sense. It defies logic. It is not the way things happen. 99 year-old men and women just do not have babies. Who can blame them for doubting!?
In the Gospel text from Mark 8 the focus is on Peter. Peter has his own ideas about how Jesus’ ministry should proceed. Things have been going pretty well. Jesus has become very popular and effective. Peter seems to have a good sense of politics and knows just how Jesus should capitalize on his popularity so that he can then move into a position to consolidate his power and establish the Kingdom of God. All this makes sense to Peter. But Jesus has his own ideas: The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected… and be killed and after three days rise again. What! This does not sound like a very good plan for political and military success. Peter tries to instruct Jesus but is rebuked harshly: Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. I wonder how Peter reacted to this. I am sure he was embarrassed, maybe hurt, but I think perhaps mostly he was disappointed – disappointed in Jesus. This is not what he signed up for. Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah, the King (see 8:27-30 – pew bible NT pg.34); Jesus is supposed to be the one who liberates Israel and establishes the Kingdom of God. But he is going about it all wrong, and Peter can sense that things are not going to turn out the way he is expecting and hoping. Jesus is turning out to be a major disappointment!
Doubt and disappointment in Jesus! Doubt and disappointment in God! This is not too foreign to us, is it? God’s ways seem odd to us and illogical and we get impatient. After all we know how the world works and so we (Like Abraham and Sarah) just take things into our own hands. We believe the promises but we have doubts that God will actually deliver on his promises; but more than that, perhaps we worry that God will deliver but in ways that we are uncomfortable with and are out of our control – and we like to be in control.
But disappointment is an even more difficult issue for us, maybe because we are afraid to admit it. But if we are honest we have to admit that like Peter, we get disappointed with God and with Jesus. We look around and we see how much struggle and suffering and pain and loss there is and we wonder: where is God. But when this pain and suffering comes to us we are disappointed with God. Why is this happening, we wonder? But we mostly keep this to ourselves because somehow we have learned not to express or be honest about our doubts and disappointments, as if just expressing this will make God get angry with us and things will get worse. Just look at Jesus’ reaction to Peter, for example. We don’t want Jesus to come down like that on us!
But let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ reaction. Why does Jesus get angry with Peter? It is not because Peter is disappointed in him, it is because Peter is trying to control and manipulate him! Peter’s motives might be honorable and make sense to him, but he doesn’t have the complete picture. Also remember, Jesus doesn’t reject Peter; he doesn’t fire or demote him. In fact a few verses later, Jesus takes Peter with him up the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus remains committed to Peter – no matter how disappointed Peter gets or how much he misunderstands or even how much Peter denies Jesus. Here then is the key to understanding our own doubt and disappointment in God. There is nothing wrong with expressing doubt, disappointment, sorrow and even anger at God. God can take it and we need to be honest with God and with ourselves. The book of Psalms gives us many beautiful models of ways to express these feelings to God. But then perhaps we also need to recognize that perhaps we do not see the whole picture and that we need to be open to God and recognize we have more to learn. “Because the God revealed in Jesus shows up always and only in the broken places of our lives and world. Like Peter, we are disappointed because we do not get the God we want, the God we've been taught to worship, the God we have a right to expect. But, also like Peter, in Jesus and his cross and resurrection we discover, not the God we may want, but the God we desperately need. The God whose sheds glory to join us in our shame; the God who leaves heaven to enter our hells-on-earth; the God who abandons strength -- at least strength as we imagine it -- so that God can join us, embrace us, hold onto us, and love and redeem us at our places of weakness. The God we meet in Jesus, that is, comes for those broken in body, mind, or spirit to be one with us and for us. This God will understand our disappointments (and doubts), and even expects them. Moreover, this God will meet us in them to teach us anew and again that it is at the places of our brokenness that we sense, meet, and are enveloped most fully in God's strong love.”*
Finally, did you notice that all of the main human characters in our lessons today get new names? Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai become Sarah; Simon becomes Peter. Those of us who are claimed by God and are heirs of God’s promises have been changed by these promises and this is symbolized by the new name. And did you know that we too have been given a new name in our Baptism? The name is Christ and this name makes us heirs of the promise of God’s love and grace and assures us that no matter what, God, through Christ, is with us now and always through every twist and turn of our lives. We do not need to fear the darkness or the crosses that await us to carry, for the cross of Christ provides light and gifts us with resurrected life.
* Quote from the essay “Disappointment with God” by Dr. David Lose, Luther Seminary - found on the website: Working Preacher