— David Barton’s sermon for Sunday 21-February —
I’d like to say something about the first reading we had today: the story from Genesis about God’s covenant with Abraham. It’s not a easy passage but, along with the gospel, it’s a passage that lies at the heart of the biblical message. It’s, strange, and it’s about mystery and miracle – neither of which are very easy for 21st Century Christians to digest. But let me tell the story and then say why I think it’s important for us.
Abraham has made a long, uncertain journey, from Mesopotamia, (modern Iraq,) around what we call the Fertile Crescent and arrived in Canaan. And it has now became clear that this is to be his place. Twice God has told him that he will have numerous descendants who will inhabit this land. And yet…….he still has no son, and he and Sarah are old. I always enjoy these stories about Abraham. Particularly because he always has a very direct relationship with God. Refreshingly frank and honest. And here he is very direct. This is almost a shout of accusation. “You have given me no offspring”. What is this all about?
And then this slightly barbed beginning leads into a passage that is – as I hope you sensed when you heard it – extraordinary, powerful, and one which is pivotal in terms of the history of faith. Important for Christians, because this is the passage to which Paul, and the writer of the Epistle of James, and the writer of Hebrews all look back to, building on it their understanding of God and the work of Jesus. And hugely important for Jews – of course. One of the sisters at Fairacres used to go regularly to the Leo Baeck Rabbinic College in North London – a training college for future Rabbis. She told me that it is hard to covey the sense of devotion and reverence that the rabbis bring to this passage. It is an ancient piece of scripture, handed down in an oral tradition long before it was written down. It has about it a powerful sense of mystery and wonder. And the closer you look, the stronger that sense becomes.
God’s response to Abraham is to ask him to look at the vast bowl of the night sky above him. Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars of heaven – uncountable. And, impossible though that seems to Abraham, he trusts that God will do it. And God saw the trust and “reckoned it to him as righteousness”. It is the first lesson we all of us have to learn about faith. It’s our trust God looks for, not our goodness, or dutifulness. Abraham was not a particularly good man. But this is how God always works. Remember the dying thief on the cross? He asked that Jesus should remember him – and was promised paradise. On the basis of our slender trust God pours out gifts beyond our imagining.
And this is made real in a passage that is among the most extraordinary in the bible. God puts Abraham into a deep sleep. The word used in Hebrew is the same word used when God puts Adam into a deep sleep in order to take his rib and make Eve. So it’s word associated with God intervening for a very special purpose. And in this sleep Abraham has a vision. He cuts the corpses of animals in half and lays them opposite each other on the ground. Then he waits, watching, defending them against the birds of prey who of course see them as food. And then as he watches, Abraham sees the flaming pot and the torch pass between the two halves of the animals. This is God sealing his promise to Abraham, and not just him: to all who follow him too This is apparently what you did. As you pass through the two halves of the animals in effect you are saying “If I break this covenant, do to me what has been done to these animals.” This is God choosing to bind himself to his promise. Few things could be more awesome.
As we know, God keeps that promise. The desperately wanted baby is born to these two old people. And that is, on the face of it, unreasonable, unpredictable, beyond explanation. But that is again, part of the lesson we have to learn about faith. Faith and trust do not depend on us, they depend on the fact that God is faithful to us, and that God keeps promises. And, more than that: “With God nothing is impossible”. Mark says that, three times in his Gospel, and Luke says it right at the start of his so that we won’t forget. We live, if only we would recognise it, in a world of unexpected, surplus blessings, freely given. God showers us with love.
And that promise underpins today’s gospel. Jesus is warned that Herod is out to get him. But for Jesus, Herod, dangerous monster though he might be, is not the enemy. “Go tell that Fox” he says. Foxes are low in the pecking order of predatory animals. Jesus destination is Jerusalem, and there he will prove that God’s love is stronger than even the worst that can be thrown at it. On the cross God in Christ lives out the pledge of love given to Abraham. And in doing so he opens up for us a whole new way of living.
So there it is. And I am aware that the response to all that can easily be: “Yes, but….” Because in our scientific age – for the past 200 years, roughly – well educated people like us have, at best, been uncomfortable about the claim of miracle. Scientific understanding demands proof. All of this is troublingly without it. So we marginalise it in our minds. The bible is of course unchanged, and un-embarrassed. At its heart lies the assumption that with God nothing is impossible.
But before we dismiss all this, we should also note something else. What the bible speaks of is not a big spectacular miracle. It is always a very local, very personal one. An old couple who long for a child, and get one. A young girl, who is a virgin, discovering she is with child. Because the claim we make as Christians is that this is about love, and love is always personal like that. And that is most especially true of the love that pours out from the heart of the universe.
So this is how I think we should understand it. We need to trust, pushing against the voices in ourselves that suggest is all impossible, and then look to our own experience and the heart of where we are.
If we are lonely we will discover God’s love right in the centre of our loneliness, sharing it, understanding it. Or if we are anxious about the illness of someone we love, or anxious about our own illness and frailty, we don’t need to look outside that context. We should look into it, into its very heart, because that is where we will find the love of God, already there, knowing about it, sharing what we face. And it’s not that it all changes – pains don’t go away, illnesses don’t vanish – but the context changes. Because this is love that never fails. God’s promise always holds good – in life and yes, into and beyond death. When we understand that, then we know that all is well, no matter what happens, and all manner of things shall be well. It is as if, in some way pain has a purpose, and loneliness becomes solitude, a gift that God asks us to share with him. That’s the miracle. And then we can look out onto the world in optimism and hope, (even a world as troubled as ours). because we know it is filled with God’s promise. And God keeps his promises.