This is a two-part sermon based on Genesis 15:1-18 and Luke 13:31-35
Faith without ‘results’
The theme of today’s readings, my commentaries reliably inform me, is “Trust in God” Today’s readings are about faith and trust and hope but neither of them are very comfortable readings.
Consider the Old Testament reading that we just heard. I expect that many of us are familiar with the story of God’s promise to Abram and Sarai (Abraham and Sarah) but I want to quickly put this particular reading from the 15th Chapter of Genesis into context.
It was way back in Chapter 12 when God told Abram that he would bless Abram and make him a great nation if Abram would set out on a journey toward the land that God was promising him.
By Chapter 15, when this reading takes place, much time has passed. Abram has seen Caanan and been told by God that his descendents will live there although he will not. He and Sarai had been forced into exile in Egypt, they have lived with and parted from Abram’s nephew Lot, and Abram has done battle with foreign kings.
We can assume that Sarai is already too old to bear children because in the very next chapter, Sarai tells Abram to conceive a child by her servant. Although Abram has received a promise from God, he and Sarai have arrived at the twilight of their lives with absolutely no concrete sign that God’s promise is going to be fulfilled.
Now, of course, we know the end of the story, but in order to appreciate this reading, we need to forget what we know. At the moment, the story is one of unfulfilled potential, of longing, pain, disappointment and probably even a sense of mourning for what might have been. The man who was arguably one of the greatest Patriarchs of the Judeo-Christian tradition is barren and, at the moment, he is forced to continue to live in a state of barrenness.
Even when the longing of Abraham and Sarah is fulfilled by the birth of their son Isaac, I don’t think it’s a case of a fairy-tale ending of the “they all lived happily ever after” type. Abraham dies without seeing his descendents living in the Promised Land so he dies not knowing whether God’s promise is ultimately fulfilled.
To be a person of faith is to trust in the future that God has promised. To be a person of faith is to live assured of that future even in a barren or deathly present.
This kind of faith can be really difficult. By our nature, human beings like to deal with tangible things. It often seems contrary to common sense to be told, like Abraham: no, your prayers have not yet been answered, and they may not be answered in your lifetime, but I have made my promise to you that hope does exist, that new life does exist and I give you my solemn pledge that everything I am doing is for a future of justice and righteousness and for the best interests of humankind.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m really honest with myself, there are many times in my life when I don’t want to live with the tension required by faith. I want to know with certainty how God intends to bring about the Kingdom, I want to know what that Kingdom is going to look like and I want to know when it’s going to happen. And most of all, I want to see people who I care about be young and healthy and prosperous forever, even though I know that this is not the way the world works.
I suspect that lots of people think this way. The reason that I think this is because, as human beings we seem to be constantly searching out magical solutions to the challenges of being human.
I’ve recently heard of a new movement in the US called ‘The Secret’; It started with a DVD which claims that there exists an ancient ‘secret’ of success that has been suppressed by the powers that be and – surprise, surprise – by the Roman Catholic church, of course. The advert for the DVD claims that all successful people have known ‘The Secret’ and that by unlocking ‘The Secret’, a person can have health, wealth and happiness and anything else that they want.
In the Christian Church we have these movements as well. If you just ‘do’ Christianity the ‘right way’ or have the right beliefs about healing ministry or speaking in tongues, or whatever, all your problems will be instantly healed and magically go away.
This all too human desire for easy solutions is not so much about faith as it is about finding faith difficult. The consolation is that we are in good company.
The great Patriarch Abraham also got tired of having faith. He also got tired of waiting. He did continue in his faith, but not without asking God: Where? How? How Long?
Seeing God in the Emptiness
Every now and then someone says to me “Well, of course, faith is a crutch for those who are not strong enough to face life on their own.” But I don’t actually think that faith is a crutch and I think you know by now that I don’t think it’s always the easy option.
There are times when people of faith are somehow given by God the courage to stand and face the looming empty spaces of human existence. Perhaps an emptiness of illness, fear of death, fear for a loved one, or the fear of hopelessness, whatever the emptiness consists of. Faith in God gives us the ability to stop and linger in that uncomfortable place and live in that uncomfortable place despite the fact that you don’t really want to be in there in the first place.
But our culture is very uncomfortable with this experience of emptiness. We immediately look to fill the empty places with activity, with words, but most of all with the “certainty” that everything will work out OK in the end. We create a lot of noise and busyness to distract ourselves. But it is sometimes during these times and in these places of emptiness that we are able to see God more clearly.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus stood and looked into the void and he chose to walk toward it rather than away from it. Today’s Gospel reading – perplexing as it may seem – is, I think, about Jesus making an intentional choice to walk towards his crucifixion.
Now the way that you might teach this to a young person might be to say that ‘Jesus had to die for our sins, so that we could be saved. So Jesus made the decision to go to Jerusalem where he knew that he would die.’
I just want to unpack this a bit for adult ears because I don’t think the scenario was that simple.
In making this decision to walk toward his crucifixion, I think that there was a lot of faith involved on Jesus’ part. Remember that he was fully human as well as fully divine.
I think that the significance of Jesus’ incredible faith was his ability to look into the gaping emptiness of his upcoming crucifixion and see God in that emptiness.
The emptiness he faced included not only his own death, but also all the sin and hopelessness of the entire cosmos: past, present and future. Jesus looked into the gaping void of eternal death, despair, depravity and destruction and in this void he had the faith to see God’s purposes for the future.
Ultimately, Jesus had to trust in the Resurrection. With no reason to do so other than God’s promise and covenant – the same covenant that God made with Abraham - Jesus had to trust that God’s purpose was ultimately a purpose for life rather than for death. And so do we.
Why does Jesus set his sights on Jerusalem? Quoting Psalm 118, Jesus says that he is going to Jerusalem because it is the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.
The Temple City of Jerusalem, which is supposed to be the sign and the symbol of the Kingdom of God on Earth, is not. Jesus is going to tear down the Temple and rebuild it in three days. The presence of God on earth does not dwell in the Temple. The presence of God on earth will dwell in the Risen Christ.
The sacrifice of the Temple is going to be replaced once and for all by Jesus’ once and final sacrifice. This is a sacrifice of Love (with a capital L) and a sacrifice of Forgiveness (with a capital F).
The worship of God through laws and prohibitions, through sacrifices and rituals is going to be replaced by God’s love and forgiveness. This divine love and forgiveness is costly. If Christian love is self-giving love, the crucifixion is the ultimate self-giving.
Martin Luther said that Jesus defeated sin, death and the power of the devil. Earlier on, I said that Jesus gazed into the abyss of the sin and hopelessness of the entire cosmos and that he had the faith to believe that God’s purposes would prevail.
I suspect that there are no words on earth that are adequate to express what our salvation is about. In very crude terms this is the ultimate stand-off between good and evil, between God and ‘Satan’, between hope and despair.
What is the eternal meaning of existence? Is it death, despair and destruction? Or is it life, hope and creation? The Christian tradition has always affirmed that the external meaning of existence is life.
As Christians, we believe that the Christ Event is the fulfilment of the covenant promise that God made with the Patriarchs. The Abrahamic Covenant is particularly meaningful to us, because Christians see this covenant as being not just to the Jewish people but to all peoples and all nations.
I said earlier that the theme for today’s readings is “Trust in God”. Both Abraham and Jesus had their faith and their trust in God challenged in extreme circumstances.
God asked Abraham to have faith, against all apparent reason, that he would be the father of God’s people and indeed, the father of God’s covenant with all nations.
As part of his divine mission, Jesus was called to look into the abyss of eternal evil and have faith in God’s purposes for life, to have faith in the resurrection and thereby to BE the catalyst for eternal life: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
On this second Sunday of Lent, I pray that we may be given the grace of faith both when faith comes easily and when it is difficult. I pray that when faith is difficult, that we may be inspired by the faith of Abraham but also take comfort in the fact that he too challenged and questioned God.
But most of all, I pray that we remember that it was Jesus’ faith in the love and forgiveness of God that brought salvation into the world.
During Lent, we examine our lives and our consciences, but we also look forward to Easter in the faith and the conviction that the eternal purpose of God is life, hope and creation. Amen