How might we understand this word faith – in which we are to grow?

March 17, 2019

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Preached by Ordinand Matthew Renshaw, using Gen 15:1-12,17,18 and Luke 13:31- end at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 17th March 2019, the Second Sunday of Lent.

I once read a somewhat frustrated reflection upon Lent. It said

“an important but often neglected season in the church year. Lent is supposed to be a time we review our spiritual life, think again about what it means to be a follower of Christ, reset the compass of our discipleship, and prepare ourselves to celebrate the Easter festival…. But often we just give up biscuits.”

I wonder if the key word there is just.

The writer isn’t suggesting that giving up biscuits isn’t useful, he is pointing out that at the deepest level Lent is a far more serious business.

On Ash Wednesday we hear the Church’s explanation of what we are invited to in actively acknowledging and keeping Lent

“Self examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self denial, meditating on God’s holy word…”

It is not an exhaustive list – though it may appear exhausting. But we’re told its aim is that we may “grow in faith and devotion to our Lord.”

To grow in faith. How might we understand this word faith – in which we are to grow?

Our Old Testament reading today depicts Abraham doing just that. And we can learn so much about faith from this passage.

Just to bring us up to speed 2 chapters previously God spoke to Abraham and told him his offspring will be as numerous as the particles of dust of the earth.

Now God speaks again to Abraham, telling him he will reward him by giving him the land as far as he can see.

Abraham is not terribly impressed. He points out that land is no use if he has no one to pass it onto – there is still the small matter of his not having an heir. And as nothing has happened, and his wife is around 90 years old clearly they have been speaking at cross purposes.

It would appear that Abraham thus far displays no sign of faith.

But actually he displays the first and the key ingredient of faith – doubt.

There need be doubt – for who has faith in what he already knows?

Abraham challenges God; he picks holes in his reassurance.

Abraham is not a peaceful, pious recipient of faith. It is a hard fought and deeply argued conviction.

God doesn’t get defensive; he doesn’t backtrack or change his story, or try to avoid the question like a politician. He simply repeats the promise.

And he shows him the stars.

And Abraham believes.

At that moment something changes in Abraham and he believes the promises of God. He suddenly has faith

It would appear that the view of the stars allowed Abraham to shift his perspective away from his own needs and desires, and be open to the possibility that far deeper truths lay in what was beyond his own access and comprehension.

God doesn’t force or coerce, just offers.

Ultimately it is a free choice.

“And it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

The beautiful thing about that phase is that it can be read in both directions. Traditionally we read it such that God recognised Abraham as righteous. However the original Hebrew can also be read that through his acceptance of God’s promise, his faith in God, Abraham recognised and affirmed the righteousness of God.

We need not feel uncomfortable in being so bold as to reckon righteousness to God, because it is precisely the righteous of God which is affirmed by the bizarre ritual that is described.

As a sign of a covenant between two parties, both would walk between the divided remains of slaughtered animals, in the understanding that, if either party broke the agreement, they would share in the death of the animals.

Here, in images that go without explanation, only God passes between the animals. No words are spoken. There is no human involvement. The covenant between God and Abraham is profoundly confirmed and at the same time shown to be purely God given. Only God can break it – but he will not.

OK, so it’s of its time, but what might be overlooked as an incomprehensible ritual, in reality seeks to demonstrate perhaps the most fundamental aspect of God’s relationship to humankind – beginning with Abraham and ultimately to us.

All that is required of Abraham is that he trusts that it will be so.

And in that we get a glimpse of what it means to have faith.

For Abraham it is to believe and trust in the promise against childlessness whilst continuing to live with the childlessness.

How does that translate more widely?

Faith is to hold onto the promise, when all around seems to contradict that promise. In so doing it will be reckoned to us as righteousness.

Faith is to resolve to live in the present, no matter what it might look like, whilst being assured of God’s future.

And that takes us to Jesus.

Our gospel reading shows Jesus living very much in the present whilst looking to bring about God’s future.

 

The present reality for Jesus is to be surrounded by suffering, whilst he himself receives death threats from Herod.

Luke doesn’t portray a particularly joyful or comfortable scene. But Jesus’ dedication and resolve to what he must do is extraordinary and unflinching.

Healing and casting out demons is a mere foretaste of what is to come – for it is on the third day that his work will be complete. Luke’s reference to the third day makes it clear that Jesus is in no doubt how his work is to be completed.

Herod holds no fear for him. Despite a death under Herod probably being far less protracted and cruel than that which he is to suffer, Jesus resolves that his death must be in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is  the centre of the land that was promised to Abraham.

Jerusalem is the metropolis of God’s people. It is the site of the Temple. It is Mount Zion.  It is the focus of so much prophesy.  Jesus is the one that has been spoken of by the prophets –  fulfilment must come in Jerusalem.

Why then does he lament? Humanity is offered God’s future.. The very love of God is rejected by those who should have been best placed to receive it.

They will not recognise the only one who can offer them true protection and safety

“And I tell you, you will not see me again – you will not recognise me –  until the time comes when you say ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’”.

Matthew’s Gospel puts these words on Jesus’ lips after his arrival in Jerusalem. For Jesus here is not referring not to his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday –  no Jesus is referring to his coming again in majesty, as judge of all.

And so through all that we see a pure demonstration of Jesus’ faith. Despite all the hardship around him he holds faith in what is to be – that he will die, that he will rise, and that he will come again.

It’s hard for us to read the gospels with a post Easter view and not to lose sight of the humanity of Jesus.

But to do so is to miss his own need for faith.

If we see Jesus purely as fully divine, then there is no triumph in his resisting human temptation, no genuine uncertainty or apprehension of what lies ahead, no Gethsemane dread in the face of imminent suffering.  No reliance on a faithful clinging to God the father to see things through. Here then is simply God in disguise.

From a post – Easter view it’s easy to read the gospels and lose sight of the sense of hesitancy and initial uncertainty there must have been in Jesus’ own reflection upon his faith. His sense of coming to understanding of who he was. His recognition of the fact that the amazing feats he was somehow able to achieve came directly from his own unique connection with, and constant need for, God, the one whom he was able to call Father.

And it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

Through faith he continually abided in the love of the father and the father in him. And it was reckoned one to the other as righteousness.

Faith.

In faith, we try to make sense of where we fit in to all that has gone before us.

Faith – in which we seek to grow.

Perhaps lent gives us the opportunity, as no other season does, to recognise that faith is our response to an already given grace.

It’s not a reception of the goodness we find in the world, but a reception of the goodness promised, in spite of the way the world is.

There is much goodness in the world to be thankful for, and perhaps that is what we seek to acknowledge through the giving up of the proverbial biscuit. As a spiritual exercise it is an important and profound discipline.

But grace goes far beyond the good things of this world. And we need make space for lament.

So that faith is not a reception of the goodness we find in the world, but a reception of the goodness promised in spite of the way the world is.

The proof of faith is the waiting – even when the delay seems unending.

No-one seems willing to wait any more. It’s rather old fashioned. The concept of waiting is fast becoming extinct. Perhaps to be replaced by clicking –  If I want something I just click on it and it will be brought to my door.  Or appear on my computer screen. Whenever and wherever I please,

Of course all this offers so much that is positive and beneficial to so many. But it can also beguile us, distract us into looking too much at our own wants and desires, to our own vision of what our future may be – whilst losing sight of the stars.

We all from time to time can become more focussed on our future – rather than God’s future. And Lent offers us all the opportunity to recognise that.

And so we are invited to wait. We actively and consciously wait. In sweet humility and adoration we wait.

Despite all that goes on around us good or bad, we wait assured of God’s future. And when doubts come we refocus on Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the Christ,  the one who by his faith has established that future. We can take comfort, we can rejoice that we may be so bold as to reckon it to him as righteousness.