Sunday, 28 February 2010

Sunday 28th February 2010, Second of Lent Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18 Luke 13.31-35

Each week I read through the set lectionary readings for Sunday, and see which ones ‘speak’ to me before deciding which ones to preach on. And the Old Testament reading today made me sit up and wonder whether I was up to tackling it. So here goes…

This passage from Genesis is one of the classic blood & gore ceremonies of the ancient world. They probably still take place in some parts of the world, but here, in the UK in the 21st century it all seems rather messy, cutting animal carcasses in half and laying the parts out on the ground.

What was all that about?

Let’s put this episode into the context of Abram’s life so far.

(And so far, he was still Abram; the issue of circumcision was still in the future, and that was when God changed Abram’s name to Abraham.)

This is the thing: Abram was the one chosen by God, and he was also the one who listened when God spoke to him. Ten generations previously, Noah had been alone in listening to God, and now only Abram was listening. And, like Noah, not just listening, but obeying.

He was married to Sarai and the two had followed a journey as God had revealed it to Abram.

They had travelled to Canaan, and to Egypt, and from one end to the other of the country we call Israel or Palestine, all because the Lord spoke to Abram and told him to go there.

And during all the years of their travelling both Abram and Sarai longed for a child, a son, and there was none.

Abram had doubts. God had promised him a son, an heir. Having no son, in his culture, was like a sentence to eternal death.

Eternal life, in the ancient Hebrew culture, was through a man’s children, and specifically through sons. They would carry on his line. Sons represented the future, a continuation of himself.

Abram was honest about his doubts. And he told God about how he felt. In fact he had a real whinge. He didn’t pretend to believe in the face of his real doubts; he told it to the Lord like he felt it. “O Lord God, what will you give me? … You have given me no offspring…”

And yet, when the Lord shows him the stars in the sky and tells him his descendants will be as numerous as those stars, Abram believes. He really believes. And the Lord, who knows all the secrets of Abram’s heart, knows he believes, and “the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

At this point in Abram’s journey he has just had an encounter with Melchizedek, the priest and king, who had wanted to honour Abram, but Abram had scrupulously avoided taking anything from him, because he served God only. He could have taken advantage of the situation and profited from the priest-king, but the spiritual power of Melchizedek had impressed Abram, and they treated each other with due respect.

This, then, after what might have been a test of honesty, is the point at which, with belief in his heart, Abram asks the Lord for a sign: “How shall I know that I shall possess all this land?” And God gives him a sign, following the rituals Abram would have recognised. The Lord almighty, Creator of all that is, visible and invisible, stooped to follow human rules and rituals to give his beloved Abram the sign he craved, in the blood and entrails of the sacrificial animals.

That this was a serious covenant ceremony is borne out elsewhere in the Old Testament, AND the penalty should the covenant be broken. Jeremiah 34.18: The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.

A strong warning, and confirmation of the binding nature of this covenant. It is a vow to the death.

And it is God who takes the oath. Abram provides the animals for sacrifice and prepares them, and protects them from scavenging birds, but it is God who takes the smoking fire-pot and the flaming torch and passes between the pieces of the animals. It is the Lord himself who made the covenant with Abram, not the other way round.

(It is a kind of preview of the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day that guided Moses and the Children of Israel after their exodus from Egypt.)

And in this way, God made his covenant promise to Abram, that he would be a father to millions.

And this was AFTER Abram had taken the Lord at his word, and believed. It was after he had accepted what the Lord said, that he was given this dramatic sign of God’s faithfulness. The Lord was showing him, in terms he could understand, just how seriously he, the Lord, took his own promise.

Last week, in the Gospel reading with Jesus in the wilderness facing temptations, we heard how it was AFTER Jesus had held on and been faithful to his purpose in the desert, THAT was when angels attended him.

God will stretch us, sometimes to the limit, but he will not leave us and he is faithful. And if we can believe that, and if we can hold on too, it will be reckoned to US, even to US, as righteousness.

And God stretches himself, too. Just what it cost him to keep not only the letter but the spirit of these ancient promises to his people is spelled out in the Gospel reading from Luke.

Jesus is under threat, and is aware of the danger in going to Jerusalem, and is heading there in certain knowledge that he will die there, and yet he brushes away warnings about Herod and weeps instead over Jerusalem.

What a lovely image he uses to express his desire to bring the holy city back to God: the mother hen gathering her chicks protectively under her wings, clucking and fussing over them like hens do, worrying if any of them stray away from the safety of the wings circling them.

Such a different image from the OT speaking of eagles’ wings soaring high.

The mother hen is on the ground with the chicks, and she is vulnerable too, because in protecting her chicks she leaves herself open to attack, because she won’t run away.

The line calling Herod “that fox” is an expression well-preserved by Luke.

There was a contemporary saying “Be a tail to lions and not a head to foxes”, which might even have been in Jesus’ mind when he said it. In that saying, the lion stands for nobility worth following, in preference to being manipulated as a mouthpiece for the untrustworthy fox. Herod was sly and cunning and not to be trusted. Jesus was wholly to be trusted to continue the path ordained for him to the bitter end. A vow to the death.

Abram asked and asked for what he wanted, and trusted even in the face of years of disappointment. It was to be many more years before his wife bore Isaac. Abram was not perfect, but God values faith rather than moral perfection

And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

God had said to Abram, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield”. And Abram DID believe.

How do we believe?

How confident are WE to put into practice what we learn of God, what we learn of Jesus, what we learn of how God asks us to live?

And if we sometimes have doubts, do we acknowledge them before God, or do we try and pretend we feel as holy as we think we should?

We might sometimes kid others, but we won’t kid God.

How honest are we about the way we live out the rest of the week what we say we believe on Sunday?

How honest are we about our giving, our tithing?

How honest are we about our FORgiving?

About our learning to love those we find difficult?

Those who seem to go out of their way to trip us up rather than offer a helping hand.

We can take a useful leaf out of Abram’s book, and be truly honest with God, even if that means complaining to him as Abram did. God will honour our honesty over any false piety we might offer him.

Honest faith holds an inkling of doubt. The Lord knows how hard it can be for us to hold the faith. But he asks us to do it anyway.

Believe, and be faithful, and wait upon the Lord.

What a hard thing to do.

[Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord.]

We ask for strength to wait and trust.

And to remember that the faithful path isn’t always the safe one.

Blessed IS the one who comes in the name of the Lord.



Martin Warner, Church Times 26 Feb 2010

Jane Williams, Lectionary Reflections Year C

H. Clay Trumbull, The Blood Covenant

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