Brookmans Park 27 July 2014 – the Church and the people of Israel (Genesis Chapters 29-32)

In our faith it is claimed that God chooses to enter into relationship with his creatures, with us, in special ways and at special times, with particular people. It is told that he made a covenant with one man, Abraham, and from that man he made his special people. From them came the man Jesus of Nazareth, the man who is the presence of God himself in creation, the Word incarnate, a man descended from Abraham through Isaac, through Jacob who became Israel, and through Judah, the son of Jacob and Leah and ancestor of King David.

That’s the story the Bible tells: that God is at the same time the creator of everything that exists and also the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; that God is at once utterly different from anything created and also fully present in one man, Jesus.

The Bible also tells us that history, the whole story of everything, has a beginning and will have an end. It tells us that our little stories, our lives, our births, our relationships, our deaths, fit into a single great pattern that is much more than the simple series of one generation after another. It tells us both that the great movement from Genesis to Revelation, is a movement from creation, through the fall, to redemption, and it tells us that each of us individually is infinitely and absolutely valuable in the eyes of God.

We are taught to look for meaning and purpose in our own stories and to do so by understanding how they fit into the big story, to take our narratives of family, of work, of community and to relate them to the sacred history of God’s dealings with the world. At the same time we are to look for the coming of the Kingdom and to respond to the gospel, the good news about Jesus by acting as its representatives. We are to accept the lives God gives us and to make them into acts of service to him.

This can be hard. The succession of days and years, the frustrations and also the joys, can be hard to connect to the Biblical claims. The love we hope for from God, the love we may or may not feel, might sometimes seem distant from the love we feel for the people in our lives, less real or less immediate. The part of our life to do with God can become separate from the rest of it, something for Sunday, or for when we turn deliberately to prayer.

A story like that of Jacob, his wives and his sons, can help us to see that this is not so. Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah are absolutely essential to the narrative that our scriptures tell. It is through Jacob that the promise made to Abraham, of the founding of a holy people, is realised. Jacob’s twelve sons found the twelve tribes of Israel, the covenant goes through them and through nobody else.

Their story, though, is a lurid one. A man in love with a beautiful woman tricked into marrying her plain older sister. That older sister nursing disappointment and pain over his lack of interest in her. The younger sister driven to despair by her childlessness offering her husband another woman to bear sons for him in her name. The rivalry between the sisters souring relationships throughout the family.

Neither of the sisters seems to be happy and fulfilled. Leah, with her six sons yearns for Jacob’s love while Rachel, his beloved, mourns her inability to conceive a child. God gives Leah sons in compensation for Jacob’s indifference. Rachel believes that without children she will die, while Jacob angrily responds that only God has the power to change her situation, as in the end God is moved to do.

Reading it we have no sense that any of the characters know that their lives are of the kind of cosmic importance the Bible gives them. This is a family drama where, from the point of view of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, God acts only to fulfil or to thwart their plans and ambitions, their hopes and dreams. Leah wants Jacob’s love, Rachel wants children, Jacob wants Rachel, wants sons, wants flocks, wants to be reconciled with his brother Esau and wants to see his mother Rebecca again.

From our point of view we can see that this drama is a moment in God’s long relationship with his people. Here the twelve tribes are founded, here the name of Israel is given, here the covenant is renewed and Joseph, who will take the people to Egypt is born.

Jacob, Rachel, Leah and all their sons die, as we all must die. The place of their scheming, competing and striving, their loving and sacrificing, their happiness and their sorrow, in the salvation of humankind is unknown to them. They know nothing of the culmination of the story of their family, their nation, in the birth of Christ is outside their conception.

They don’t know that Jesus will call a group of twelve apostles to take his message out and establish a living community of disciples that will last thousands of years; they don’t hear this echo of their twelve sons in twelve messengers who are the origins of what we call the Church. They know none of this and yet it is the inner meaning of their lives and they know, somehow, that those lives find their significance in God, which is why Leah’s fourth son is called Judah, for her praise of the Lord, her fifth Issachar, acknowledging him to be a reward from God and she greets her sixth and last with the words “God has rewarded me”.

In all the mess, pain and disappointment of their marriages and their lives Jacob, Rachel and Leah hold fast to the presence and the trustworthiness of God. They believe that what unfolds for them and what they feel about it matters, matters not only to them but matters ultimately, even when it seems senseless, when the meaning they seek in the love of their spouse or the lives of their children fails them.

We who belong, through the Church, to that same people of God have lives that are full of ordinary joys and ordinary sorrows as those of Jacob and his family were. For them the key thing was to have children and to occupy the land of the promise, those were the terms of God’s promises to them. The situation is different for us. The Church is not a family or a people in the same sense. It gathers people from their families and their nations into one universal communion. What is the same is that our stories, and the stories of our communities, will only be understood from the end of the narrative of salvation. Only at the end will we know what we’ve contributed and how we’ve mattered. What we can know, right now, is that we do contribute and that it matters, because that knowing is what faith in God demands from us.

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Potters Bar 8 Sept 2013 (Gen 18:22-33 and Luke 18:1-9 – keep praying and don’t give up)

People in churches do a lot of good things and this church is no exception. In this congregation I know about the care you take of one another, the visits and the ‘phone calls, the lifts and the shopping, all the ways you look out for each other. I know about the voluntary work done, for the church and the community. People take care of this building, they raise money, they organise events and groups within the church. People take part in all sorts of things in the wider community. Church people, our people, are at the heart of all kinds of thing in the town, from providing recreation to medical care, from looking after our heritage to providing education and support to children. From residential care homes to provision of walking routes.

The food bank we’re supporting, run by our friends in Life Church, is one of many where church groups reach out to those whose lives are most chaotic and dysfunctional, whose needs are greatest, and try to help. Some of those using food banks will be there just because they’ve unfortunate but many will be there because they have lost control of themselves, their money and their lives. Maybe they have problems with substance abuse. Maybe they’ve borrowed more than they can afford. Maybe their relationships are a mess. Working with them, putting them on a path to a more stable situation is not easy and it won’t always happen, but church people up and down the country will be trying.

On the biggest scale I think about Barak Obama, probably the single most powerful human being on earth. His Christianity is important to him and was formed more than anywhere else in a church in Chicago belonging to our sister denomination in the United States, the United Churches of Christ. I have no doubt at all that Obama is a sincere believer and a good man. I’m sure that in his heart he listens for God’s word to him about what he should do. So how must he feel when he wrestles with the problems of Syria. I’ll be honest and say I don’t know whether he should or should not bomb the resources of the Assad regime and if so how much, what and when. I’m glad that I’m not the President of the USA, looking at children suffocating in the open air due to the effects of sarin nerve gas and wondering what I can do about it, if anything, while the whole world watches me and my every move.

If Barak Obama is helpless in face of that horror, then what about us. I don’t know how many of you have experience of dealing with people with mental health problems or with addictions to drink or drugs, I should imagine quite a few of you do, I certainly have. It’s every bit as bad, in my view, as trying to fix the middle east. It doesn’t matter how much you want to help, it doesn’t matter how willing you are to expend your time and your energy on the person suffering, in the end there’s very little you can do. Being in that situation hurts. It hurts badly and it makes you feel guilty. It makes you feel that way, and I think it makes you feel guilty because, in a real sense, we are guilty. We are guilty when we enjoy our comforts and our happiness and we turn away from those who are locked out and are suffering.

Now, we don’t give up. When somebody we feel responsible for needs us we try our best even when we’re sure it won’t make a real difference. When we’re called on we answer. We try to love our neighbour, the person whose need is in front of us as best we can. We do that and yet we know that there are needs out there we can’t do anything about. And that hurts us, or it should hurt us.

So what do we do, what does our faith lead us to do?

The story about Abraham and God that we heard this morning is a strange and difficult part of a strange and difficult section of the Book of Genesis. God has been visiting Abraham and Sarah to tell them that they are, at the end of all their waiting, going to have a child and he hears that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are full of sin so bad that it can’t be ignored. He sends his companions, men or angels, down to Sodom, where Abraham’s nephew Lot is living, to find out just how bad things are down there. As he turns to follow he decides to tell Abraham what’s happening, where he’s going.

Things are bad in Sodom. God knows it and so does Abraham. Abraham fears for what is going to happen there. He knows there’s nothing he can do about it so he asks God what he’s going to do. He asks God to spare the city for the sake of any righteous people there might be there and God agrees that he will. Abraham believes that God will act justly. He probes what that justice means. Different people think different things about what this conversation means but almost all agree that it’s the first example in the Bible of what we call intercessory prayer. A human being asking God for something on behalf of others.

The story doesn’t end well. The people of Sodom disgrace themselves when God’s messengers arrive, the ten righteous are not to be found. Lot and his family flee the city and it is reduced to a lifeless ruin as God rains fire and brimstone on it. Lot’s wife perishes during their flight. It’s a disaster for everybody. Abraham, the father of faith, the root of Israel, has interceded for Sodom and Sodom has been totally destroyed.

And yet Abraham’s absolute faith in God and in God’s promises to him is unbroken. He walks the way God shows him. He does what God wants him to do. He offers prayer and sacrifice as instructed and trusts that salvation, victory, vindication and all good things will come as he has been told they will. From Abraham comes Israel, from Israel comes Christ and from him we accept our gift of eternal life.

In the face of all the horror and failure life offers to us, whether in our own experience or in what we see in others lives; in the face of the inadequacy of whatever efforts we make to mend what is broken; in the face of the despair we all must sometimes feel; in the face of all of this we are called to be faithful, as Abraham was faithful. We are called to trust that all will be well, all is well, despite appearances to the contrary.

This faithfulness is expressed, above all, it seems to me, in our prayer. When we pray, when we ask God to put right all that is wrong we are saying what Abraham said: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” When we pray to God we have to believe that God will always do what is right. When we see what seems wrong we have to take it to him and say “will you not do what is right?”

That putting the question to God doesn’t mean that we’re off the hook. We can’t challenge God in prayer as Abraham did if we don’t show that we try to do what is right. But if we do, and if we believe in a good God who can make a difference we have to do what Jesus told us to do, in our passage from Luke’s gospel. We should always pray and not give up.

Potters Bar 17 March 2013: Who is saved? The elections of Abram and Noah and the calling of a Christian (Genesis 12:1-9 and Romans 4:13-25)

God chose Abram. He picked him out and he spoke to him. “Abram”, God said, “leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation, I will bless you and make your name so famous it will be used as a blessing.”

 

God made Abram some big promises. “I will make you a great nation.” “I will make your name so famous it will be used as a blessing.”

 

Abram obeyed God’s commands. He left his country and he set off, with Sarai his wife and with Lot his nephew.

 

Together they set off into the land God would show them.

 

We know nothing about Abram before his choosing, his election, by God. There’s nothing in the story that explains why Abram was chosen. God gives no reason, offers no justification. Abram is chosen by God for blessing and to be a blessing to all the nations.

 

His special place in God’s plan comes suddenly and without warning in the Genesis story. In this he is different, for example, from Noah, the last person before him who was chosen to play a unique part. Before we hear of God’s instructions to Noah we hear that “Noah was a good man, blameless in his generation, and he walked with God.” We understand that God chose Noah to build the ark and ensure the survival of life after the flood. Noah was righteous, he deserved this.

 

We don’t know anything like this about Abram. He is chosen to become the father of the people of God, the people of Israel. That’s all we know and as his story unfolds, and then as the story of the people unfolds, it becomes clear that neither he nor they are especially pure, especially righteous, especially holy, except through God’s choosing.

 

Abraham himself lies and fights. He pretends Sarai is his sister and not his wife so that she can join the harems first of Pharaoh and then of Abimelech without harm coming to Abram. He takes a concubine, Hagar, when his wife can’t give him a child and then when, eventually Isaac is born to Sarah he drives poor Ishmael, the son of Hagar, off into the desert. Most shockingly of all Abraham is prepared to sacrifice Isaac, to kill him with a knife, until God sends a ram to substitute for him.

 

Abraham’s story is one we might struggle to see as that of a great man of God. And yet that is what it is. Abram is chosen, as we’ve heard, and then God makes a great covenant with him. God promises Abraham many descendents and that they will occupy the land. God promises to be his God and the God of his descendents and in return Abraham has to promise that they will remember God, dedicate themselves to him, and that they will mark this belonging through the practice of circumcision.

 

Abraham is chosen and he accepts that choosing. What marks Abraham out is his willingness to trust God, to have faith in God’s promises and in God’s good will, even where that seems impossible. When he goes to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command he tells his servants to expect them both to return. Even when he is commanded to do this dreadful thing his faith does not waver.

 

Abraham isn’t chosen by God to be the father of God’s people because he is good, he isn’t especially good. Neither is he chosen by God to be without suffering. Abrahams’s life is a difficult one in many ways. When Sarah makes him send Ishmael away we are told that “this greatly distressed Abraham because of his son”. This parting would haunt any father for the rest of his life.

 

Abrahams’s life was blessed by God in many ways, as promised, but these incidents, the driving of Ishmael into the desert and the putting of Isaac on the altar, and the giving of his wife to two great kings throw huge shadows over it. Abraham was blessed by God but lived a life as marked by trouble as any of ours.

 

The great blessing was his legacy, the people founded through Isaac, the people of Israel, who would go into exile in Egypt and return to the land with the great Law given at Sinai. Who would build the temple of God’s dwelling, who would be the people through whom the creator God made himself known to his creation, through whom God would come to earth in the person of Jesus.

 

So that’s what God meant when he said Abraham would be a blessing to all the nations. He blessed us all in Christ. Abraham’s true blessing is nothing that happened in his own life, no special benefit he received for himself. Through Abraham’s faith the path was made along which Jesus would walk. Abraham’s election was fulfilled in Christ.

 

I want to suggest that something similar is going on when God chooses the members of his Church. When God chooses us, calls us, brings us to this place. God hasn’t singled us out for special favour in the sense that our lives will be untroubled and carefree. Our faith doesn’t entitle us to that kind of divine reward. No the Church is called into being as a blessing to all.

 

Just as the people of Israel were created through Abraham to be a dwelling place or a representative of God so the Church is a dwelling place and representative of God in Christ. We are called to let Christ be present to his world. Present in the word spoken, present in the bread and the wine of communion, present in our love for one another, present in our service to our world. That’s what the Church is for. Not to make us feel or even be better. Not to convince people that they should join us to save their souls. Not to provide a shelter from a sinful world, like the Ark built by the good man Noah.

 

The Church is here to be a sign of God’s love but more than that to be the place where God and the world can meet, where God can reach out and bless all the nations, like the people founded by the faithful man Abram. The Church’s destiny is to be the sign of God’s promise of blessing until that promise is fulfilled. Nobody is saved on their own. God’s plan is one for the salvation of all and we have our part to play in that plan.

Potters Bar 10 Feb 2013: “The wages of sin is death”. (Gen 3 and Rom 6)

The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life.

Eternal life, says Paul, is a gift, something we have only to accept; while death is our wage, received from our master, sin. We have to work to earn death while eternal life will come to us if we just let God give it to us.

This idea that death is a wage seems a very strange one. After all everything we know about life indicates that death is essential to it and to its development. If we assume that the contemporary scientific understanding of the story of the evolution of life is correct, and I think we should, then complex life and certainly human life, depends on processes in which the succession of generations is a requirement.

Death, from this point of view, is not something earned but something intrinsic to being a living thing. All living things die.

This point of view, which takes what we know of the the world we inhabit, the world of which we are a part, is a good and a necessary one. We can’t understand ourselves and our world without accepting that what is, is. Nature is as it is and we make the best of it that we can.

Yet “the wages of sin is death”, says Paul.

That the gift of God is eternal life is easier to grasp, to find meaning in. One might believe it or not but it seems clear and seems to make sense. God offers us life beyond death and this is an unearned gift. This disrupts the ways of nature, which offer death and by the use of God’s miraculous and supernatural power enables life eternal. Death is natural but God can overcome nature and establish a life that knows death no longer.

But “the wages of sin is death”.

A little earlier in the same chapter Paul writes: “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”

Sin here is not something we do but a master whom we obey. That’s why the term “wages” makes sense. We work for sin, we do sin’s bidding, we are slaves to sin. Our wills, when we are enslaved in this way are not our own. We are doing sin’s work and in return we are paid, paid in death.

Later we are offered this definition of sin: “everything that does not come from faith is sin”. (Rom 14:23) That seems a very broad definition. Unless something actually comes from faith it is sin. There is no set of rules that will determine whether something is sinful. Only whether they come from faith or not can determine this.

So we can expand “the wages of sin is death” to run “the reward for working for everything that does not come from faith is death”. Another way of saying this is to say that if we turn away from God and enslave ourselves to other things then we will be rewarded and the reward will be death. We will eventually be released from our enslavement into death.

This does not, I think, imply that there is a natural state of immortality and that sin makes us unnaturally or surprisingly mortal. It is saying something more modest. If we separate ourselves from God we will die.

This difference becomes clearer, perhaps, if we put the second part of our phrase: “the gift of God is eternal life” in the context of our Genesis reading, which I’m sure Paul had in his mind as he wrote this letter. We remember that God said there “Man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

Without the fruit of the tree of life human beings will die, this is natural to them. They must not be allowed, God says, to eat of the tree of life and live forever. They must be excluded from the garden to prevent this, because they now know good and evil. Knowing good and evil means that the natural processes of life must be allowed to work themselves out.

This is the background to what Paul writes. For reasons we must assume to be good God recognises that although it would be possible for men and women who know good and evil to live forever this would be a bad thing. He therefore excludes them from the garden and denies them access to the tree of life.

Now though, Paul thinks, a way has been found to overcome this. Now it is possible for God to offer us eternal life, despite our knowledge of good and evil. This way, though, might seem a surprising one. At the beginning of the chapter that concludes with the phrase with which I began Paul writes: “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

All of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death. The way to life lies through death, through the death of Jesus, through our being baptised into his death and buried with Christ.

God’s gift of eternal life is a gift, not something we earn, but nonetheless it comes at a cost. The cost if death, not our death but the death of Christ. Through this death it becomes possible for God to open again the way to the tree of life, to make eternal life available to human beings who know good and evil.

How this works is mysterious but Paul makes an attempt to explain it in the chapter before the one we have heard from: “ the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

On the one hand trespass and judgement; on the other gift and justification. The eternal life that is now offered is not a new judgement, it is not an acquittal. It is a gift. It is not earned, not a wage. It is a gift.

The short passage with which we began: “the wages of sin are death but the gift of God is eternal life” is often read as a threat or a judgement. Sinners die because they are sinners, if you sin you will die. I think this puts the emphasis on the wrong part of it. Paul’s main interest is in the gift of eternal life. It is no surprise that people die, Paul doesn’t need to tell anyone this. What is a surprise is that eternal life is possible for all through the death of one. That’s what Paul wants us to hear. We can live forever, by God’s grace. We can forever by joining Christ in his death to sin. This requires that we change our master, that we turn our backs on sin, who commands us, and enslave ourselves instead to righteousness,

There is no more need, after Christ, to deny us the fruit of tree of life. Instead we are invited to eat from it. The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.