August 5, 2018
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Hebrews 11.17-31 at Mattins on Sunday 5th August 2018, the tenth Sunday after Trinity.
In that lovely list that we heard from the Book of Hebrews, of those who triumphed through faith, we came to Jacob: by faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, ‘bowing in worship over the top of his staff’.
You won’t find the scene described quite like this in your Bible. There you’ll find Jacob ‘bowing down at the head of his bed’, as you might imagine someone mustering just enough energy to sit up without straightening up.
However, the writer of the Book of Hebrews was familiar with the Greek version of the Old Testament where the word for ‘bed’ is translated as ‘staff’ – they are words easily confused in the original text. And the writer liked what he read because it offered a wonderful image of faith. The staff made Jacob a pilgrim – the staff being a symbol of pilgrimage, as it still is today, along with others such as the scallop shell.
Jacob’s pilgrimage, as is the case for all pilgrims, wasn’t simply an external one. His pilgrimage was fundamentally one of the heart. You’ll remember that it began when he came from the womb grasping the heel of his twin brother Esau. And that grasping continued as he swindled his brother out of his birthright, by pretending to be him and gaining from his father Isaac the blessing intended for his firstborn.
When later Jacob was seeking reconciliation with his brother, he camped the night before their meeting at the ford at Jabbok, where he wrestled all night with a mysterious foe who put his hip socket out of joint. Jacob didn’t succeed in overcoming the stranger but managed to wrestle from him a blessing.
The story of Jacob, as it unfolds, is the story of a man learning the lesson that for all his deviousness he could never overturn God’s plans. In fact, God used his character and even his flaws to further His purposes. Jacob learned that God’s ways would always will out in the end, and that nothing would or could stand in his way. This is faith: confidence in God’s promises.
So what was Jacob doing with the last grains of his energy, just before he died? He had come to the end of his earthly pilgrimage; he was bowing in worship over the top of his staff, bowing in devotion and defeat. His illusions of power had been defeated; he submitted to the power of God and the triumph of His purposes, which meant that he did something remarkable.
His son Joseph wished him to bless his own children in order of seniority and even directed his blind father’s hands to do so; but Jacob had learned his lesson. He crossed his hands over and blessed the second-born son, Ephraim, first, and the firstborn, Manasseh, second. So Jacob’s blessing was an act of absolute submission to the will of God. Jacob had reached the end of his pilgrimage.
That’s why he is on the list of those who triumphed through faith, alongside Abraham who, trusting in God’s promises, was even prepared to sacrifice his only natural son Isaac, the very one who God was going to use to bring blessing to multitudes. Abraham, like Jacob, trusted in God’s power to make the future right, to fulfil his promises.
Of course we could add to this list Jesus himself, who despite not being able to see God’s future said as he drew near to the cross, ‘Not my will, but yours be done’.
So faith is both trusting God for the future and acting in the confidence that nothing can separate us from it, even if usually the future is way beyond our imagination. And I’d like to spend a few minutes on one example of how faith might work for us in our times, where I believe we do know God’s future in the broadest terms.
In the Bible we are told of the future of creation. Unlike the scientific visions of the Big Crunch or the collision of galaxies, which are visions of how things will work our materially, the biblical vision is of fulfilment. God promises a time when God will be all in all, when there will be a new heaven and a new earth. It’s a vision of complete renewal.
If that is the promised future, how might we live by it today? One approach is to set aside all responsibility, to say that nothing we can do can deflect God’s power, to say that we may just as well do whatever we like to use and abuse the world’s resources. And we might help ourselves along by interpreting the imagery of a new heaven and earth as some kind of other-worldly salvation unrelated to anything we know in the here-and-now. Put alongside the faith of Abraham, Jacob and Jesus, however, this sort of approach seems more like selfishness and arrogance than genuine faith.
But there’s another approach, represented by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. His poem God’s Grandeur is an affirmation of faith in the power and greatness of God, set against our capacity to smudge and smear the face of creation. Hopkins is not prepared to give our capacity to spoil things the last word because he notices something – ‘for all this, nature is never spent’; at the heart of creation lies its capacity for intimate, intricate regeneration: ‘there lives the dearest freshness deep down things’. A new dawn is breaking: ‘because the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings’.
There’s genius in that last line: Hopkins interjects a gasp of surprise and wonder at the glory being brought on the Spirit’s bright wings – that ah! It interrupts the rhythm and brings an unexpected intervention into the ordinary run of the line. This is exactly what the Holy Spirit does: His power interrupts the old and tired certainties of this world, like sickness and death – just as we see it in the ministry of Jesus as he performs his signs and wonders, pointing to God’s kingdom to come.
Triumphant faith, then, is faith that anticipates God’s future rule by following in the flow and fire of the Spirit. Our reaction to our plastic strewn, over-heating earth should never be one of apathy, as we face up to our own smudge and smell: we should have faith, trust in God’s power, which one day we will see fully manifested, but which even now can leap into history, even into our own times, and make change.
True, we have wounded our planet more deeply than we could ever have anticipated. Ten years ago we did not fully understand the storm we were stirring by our negligence, but now we can see day-by-day on the news our precious planet out of kilter and wobbling.
Despite all this, triumphant faith never accepts that we have left things too late for God to act. It’s never too late to ask God for repentance, to make way for him to heal the land and the sea, to let that dearest freshness deep down work of the Spirit renew what has been besmirched and despoiled by our trade and outright folly.
When you leave here today, please do take a look at the Fields of Battle exhibition in the Outer Close; it tells the story of how some of the most scarred landscapes in Europe are now green again. There are still some poignant signs of the devastation of a century ago, but the flowers and fields flourish once more around them. Faith is the confidence to live towards a future which is indeed coming and glimpsed even now.
The resurrection, in which we believe, is the guarantee that God is faithful and will win for us this final victory.