SERMON FOR THE EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY 11.8.19 at St Mary’s
What astonishing words our first reading from Genesis starts with: “do not be afraid, Abram I am your shield; your reward shall be very great”. At this point in the story of Abram, it certainly looks as if God’s pervious promises are beginning to wear. We can feel his frustration that nothing seems to be happening. He’s getting older. His wife Sarah is barren. There is no prospect of a son and heir. He complains to God. But God does not respond with anger but instead takes him out on a starry night in the wilderness: Abram ponders the view and sees, accepts, in mystery, in faith, the huge promise that God has made to him: his descendants shall be as many as the stars he might be able to count. Abram believes, and God sees that they are in right relationship. And, in the following verses, Abram sees a fire which revels to him no less than the holy presence of God. His faith is underlined. It is restored.
We can take great comfort from God’s willingness to allow Abram to express his doubts, his fears, his questions, and then to give him an astonishing sign of assurance. This reminds us that being completely honest about our doubts and worries is always a better way for us than to abandon our hope. Though very challenging, by doing this, we may be open to a direction of living that will lead us, sooner or later, to strengthening our faith.
When we seek to understand something of our life, either more deeply, or for the first time, we almost inevitably look backwards. Soren Kierkegaard reminded us that although life can only be understood backwards, it must be lived forwards. Both our first and second readings give us the example of Abraham, who, like other great figures of faith lived life forwards. People like Abraham did not seek to return to the past, or to where they had come from. Instead they lived in the hope of a good outcome in the future. They walked by faith into an uncertain future. At this time we are a nation that is also being pointed to a new and very uncertain future. Whatever may happen, we shall be challenged at many levels, including our faith and our hope.
In the Christian life we are often challenged to live into a new and uncertain future. That is the nature of Christian vocation. But if so, how do we proceed into the uncertainty of the future? How can we know where we are being called? And how can we be sure about this? Well, obviously we cannot be certain. Nevertheless, there are two attitudes of mind which may help us to discern where our vocation is leading us.
Firstly, we need courage. Without courage fear can overwhelm us. Many promising steps forward in the Christian life with God are abandoned because of uncertainty or fear of failure, or of making mistakes. Yes, we may almost inevitably make something of a mess of the way we step forward. There may be failure. But that is less of a problem than being defeated by it. When failure happens, we are called to look honestly at why things have gone wrong. And we are called to find wisdom and then courage to move on, however small the steps may be at first.
That leads directly to the second attitude of mind needed in seeking to discern our vocation: patience. God’s timing is not ours. Over and over again we have examples of people who have lived waiting and in hope rather than with clarity about the future. Sometimes this waiting lasts many years, before God may surprise us with a way ahead. Our journey of being a disciple is as long as our life. Indeed, it can sometimes take the whole of our lives to see where God may be leading us. Patient daily devotion so often reveals that our vocation is not about success or affirmation, or achievement, or power, or wealth, at all. Instead we gradually come to see that God is not leading us to win a race, or a prize, but simply leading us, with faith, in a walk with Christ.
The process of leading a Christian life is given a fresh impetus and focus in the passage from Luke’s gospel. Jesus has just told his followers not to be anxious about their lives. Now Jesus replaces serenity with urgency. Be dressed for action in preparation for his coming at the end of time. Of course we know that he has still not returned in the way that Biblical texts imply and it is obvious that evil and pain have not been brought to an end. Jesus’ teaching here is a reminder that all things are yet unfinished. Our vocation is a journey which demands an alertness, a readiness to discern the right way forward, with sound decisions, and with courage. None of this is simple, but we are called to be people who expect sufficient light in our lives to allow us to see Christ in the people around us. We are called to see Christ in the hurting, frightened, ignored, abused and oppressed people around us now, both here in Oxford and in the world as a whole. The call in this passage is for us to be ready and willing to walk alongside the children, women and men who suffer. We are to be dressed for action, with our light shining now. Unless we are prepared to live in this way, we shall probably miss Christ altogether when he arrives at the unexpected hour. Amen.