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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Sermon for 28th Feb, Little Saling and Stebbing

Readings; Genesis 15 and Luke 13, 31 to the end. I am endebted once again to rootsontheweb, but also Mike Breen for the stuff on the chopped upp animals.

We are asked only to trust that the God whom we seek will come to us at the right time. How he come is usually up to him, not us.

In Genesis 15 Abram, too, is charged not to be afraid but to expect the fulfilment of God's promises. Abram's righteousness is his trusting response. He takes courage and waits for the Lord.

Genesis 15 is the first of two accounts of a covenant between God and Abram. This chapter focuses on the two promises of descendants and of land. The covenant ceremony described here is an ancient ritual in which the two parties pass between the slaughtered animal sacrifices as a symbolic action of their meeting and agreeing, accompanied by the threat of the fate of the slaughtered animals to any party who violated the agreement. Of course Abram does not see God here but the passing of the brazier and blazing torch between the pieces of the sacrifice show God’s commitment to the covenant. So in fact the emphasis is on God's action and responsibility.

God passes through the animals as fire and smoke as Abram sleeps. The important thing happened when Abram could not participate actively, he could only receive (presumably in a dream or vision) God’s promise. Abram’s deep sleep recalls Adam's, from earlier in Genesis when God created a partner from Adam’s rib as 'flesh of my flesh' (Gen 2.23). These two similar episodes show how human frailty is never a barrier to the plan of God, which for us I hope is a comfort!

The moving flame and smoke anticipate the cloud of fire that will lead the people through the wilderness back to the land promised to Abram. Even though that is a long way off, God’s purposes are already becoming clear to the reader. Abram is still passive; his part is only to trust that, despite present appearances – a childless nomad, God will fulfil the promise for the future of a land and a people to settle it. Abram does believe, and is not afraid. His trusting response is the righteousness recognised by God.

Our language differentiates between trust and belief; others, including the biblical languages do not; but for the purposes of what God is asking of Abram and of us, to trust is to believe. Even the English translations of the Bible vary in their rendering of verses like John 14 verse 1, some have believe, others have trust. We just need to get used to reading one word and understanding (and doing) two things.

And it is a subtle yet important difference that informs the faith of today’s church, or perhaps more accurately the faith of those who do not attend church.

Because to be a Christian is so much more than just to acknowledge that God exists, which is the question that people are usually answering on census forms and the like, giving the figure of 70% or whatever it is; it involves putting our faith – our trust – in God; not in the vicar, not in the building, not in the liturgy nor the music, but in him.

That is what Abram courageously did, and it is significant that he did it from a position of weakness and uncertainty; he did not think he would have any children, but God promised him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and reminded him that he was the same God who had called him onto this journey from Ur in the first place.

Perhaps it was this reminder that prompts Abram’s faithful response to the Lord, but as we saw, he still has it in him to ask God a question – how can I know for sure you are going to get me this land?

God’s answer is the covenant ritual, and the promise that the people would return to the land, but that it would not be plain sailing. Abram’s courageous faith will need to be passed on to his descendants to accomplish this.

Genesis 15 is about a covenant that starts the story of Israel. Luke 13 on the other hand, is the point when Jesus’ focus shifts to his part in the sacrifice that will inaugurate the new covenant. He now is the one who takes courage as he goes on his way to die in Jerusalem. He must wait for God until the time of his own coming in the name of the Lord.

Just as God and man met in the covenant with Abram, as they both passed through the sacrifice, so also on the cross, Jesus, both God and man, passed through the sacrifice, but as victim rather than priest. So the two covenants have much in common. Both are designed to define a future for God’s people.

Herod Antipas is a 'fox', one of those that ruin the vineyard that is God's beloved Israel (Song of Solomon 2.15, Isaiah 5.1). Jesus continues to announce the prophet's good news for the people of God. The conflict will come to its climax in Jerusalem, at God's 'house', where the cherubim's sheltering wings will give way to those of Jesus, outstretched like a mother hen to include the whole cosmos in his love. He is on his way to Calvary and will be faithful until his death. By the 'third day' he will have finished his work and the world must wait for the God who will raise him to life as the one who will come in the name of the Lord.

And as we wait we too need courage, for just as Abram and Christ’s disciples lived with uncertainty, so do we. Lent is a time to reconsider the resources we have to fule that courageous faith; the scriptures, the traditions and wisdom of the church both now and in the past, and of course supremely our relationship with God in Christ.

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