Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Promises, promises, promises…

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 
18th August 2013

Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-19  Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.  3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.  9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.  11 By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-- and Sarah herself was barren-- because he considered him faithful who had promised.  12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore."  13 ¶ All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth,  14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.  16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.  17 ¶ By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son,  18 of whom he had been told, "It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you."  19 He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead-- and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

Genesis 17.1-8  When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.  2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous."  3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,  4 "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.  7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.  8 And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God."

Promises, promises, promises…

I promise I’ll always love you…
            I promise to pay the bearer the sum of ten pounds…
                        I promise I’ll pray for you…
I promise I didn’t do it…
            I promise I won’t do it again…
                        I promise I’ll save you…
I promise I’ll save everyone

I promise your people will be my people,
            and I will be their God…

We all make promises, don’t we?
            Some we mean to keep, and do keep.
                        Some we mean to keep, and don’t keep.
            Some we don’t mean to keep at all,
                        but we say them anyway.

Promises, promises, promises…

I was 16 when I got my first motorbike,
            Mum and Dad had promised I could have one,
                        and a couple of weeks before my birthday
                                    they took me to Tunbridge Wells to buy it
                        from a nice lady who had used it for going to the shops.

As if driving a small underpowered orange motorbike
            wasn’t embarrassing enough in itself,
something possessed me to plaster the sides of the top-box
            with stickers which proclaimed, in 80s style writing,
            that ‘God Keeps His Promises’

I can remember the first time I rode the bike to my grandparents house,
            ever so pleased with myself,
and I showed it to my atheist grandfather,
            who simply commented,
            ‘The thing is, Simon, God’s a clever so-and-so:
                        he never actually makes any promises.’

And whilst, thankfully, the bike and its stickers are long gone,
            to the great scrap-heap in the sky,
the question of whether God makes promises
            and of whether God keeps his promises,
remains one of the great theological conundrums
            that those who claim to be people of faith
            have to deal with.

It is one of the questions that Paul addresses
            in his letter to the Romans,
and it also dominates much of the argument
            in the book of Hebrews.

Hebrews is a strange document:
            it stands somewhat apart from the rest of the New Testament,
                        neither letter nor gospel,
                        neither narrative nor apocalypse,
It can perhaps best be described as a written-down sermon,
            sent to a ‘house church’ of marginalised Christians,
                        who had some strong links to Judaism,
                        possibly as early as the middle of the first century,
                        and possibly in Rome.

Martin Luther suggested that the author may have been Apollos,
            the great preaching rival to Paul
                        who we meet in the books of Acts and 1 Corinthians,
            and as compelling as this suggestion is
                        the bottom line is that we simply don’t know who wrote it.

However we do know what they wrote,
            and in our passage for this morning,
                        part of our ‘heroes of the faith’ series for August,
            they wrote about Abraham, and about the promises of God.

The gist of what the preacher of Hebrews is saying,
            is broadly speaking the same as the stickers on my motorbike,
            which is that God keeps his promises.

However, the problem he faces
            is that the people he is writing to
                        are facing persecution, hardship,
                                    isolation, and difficulty
                        as a result of their decision to follow the path of Christ.
And so simply asserting that ‘God keeps his promises’
            could easily seem like an overly simplistic answer
            to the painful complexities of the realities of life.

And so the preacher of Hebrews takes a different tack,
            and invites his congregation to journey with him,
            back into the murky mists of the early Israelite history stories,
to spend some time with Abraham,
            the man who made a promise to save the world.

The preacher gives us four short examples from the life of Abraham,
            which taken together offer a perspective
                        on a life lived out of the faithful conviction
                        that God is faithful to the promises he makes.

For the first example, in verse 8, the preacher takes us back to the time
            when God called Abraham to set out on a journey,
                        not knowing where he was going.

The second example, in verses 9 and 10,
            recalls God’s invitation for Abraham to look to a future
            when the time of nomadic and tent-based wandering would end
                        with the gift of a city with foundations laid by God

In these two examples, God firstly promises Abraham a home,
            and secondly promises his descendants a destiny
One day their wandering will end,
            one day Abraham’s people will enter the promised rest.

The third example is another promise,
            and we find it in verses 11 and 12.
This time it’s the promise that Abraham will have a son
            through whom the first two promises will be fulfilled.
Without descendants, the would be no people to fulfil the destiny
            of entry into the city of God.

These three examples, taken together,
            offer the reader of Hebrews an important perspective
            about the nature of faith,
and in doing so they echo a conviction
            that the preacher had expressed earlier in the chapter, in verse 1
that ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
            the conviction of things not seen.’

Abraham, and all those who are the heirs of his promise,
            are called by the preacher of Hebrews
                        to live their lives according to the conviction
            that that which has been promised by God
                        will indeed come into being,
                        however unlikely it may seem at the moment.

Just as Abraham could not see how the promises would find fulfilment,
            and yet set out on his journey of faith anyway,
so also those who have inherited the promises,
            are called to make the same journey of faith.

They are called to have faith in the promise,
            that the world will not always be like this,
they are called to have faith in the conviction
            that there is a new world coming,
            even if at present it is more hoped for than it is real,
                        more intangible than it is concrete.

The fourth example of Abraham’s faith
            is found in verses 17-19
And it is one we will return to in a few minutes
            when we consider the dramatic and traumatic story
            of the sacrifice of Isaac.

But for now, Abraham has three promises to cling to:
            the promise of a journey to a new but unknown destination,
            the promise of a city to give rest and security to his heirs,
            and the promise of a son through whom he will inherit many nations.

Of course, at the start of Abraham’s story,
            the fulfilment of these three promises is far from straightforward.

A journey into the unknown is perilous and dangerous,
            even for a nomad like Abraham,
                        used to moving with the seasons
                        and following the rhythms of the earth.

And the promise of a city
            to a man whose family had only ever known what it was to live in tents
            must have seemed an impossible transformation.

And the promise of a son
            by a wife who was well past the years of childbearing
            must have seemed laughable.

And yet…

In the promises God makes to Abraham,
            a perspective is offered on God
            which the preacher of Hebrews wants his hearers to grasp.

And this is that God is the God who is able to bring new life from death.
            The God of Abraham is the God of resurrection.

In the ancient world,
            Sarah, the wife of Abraham, bore the shame of childlessness.

In fact, the biblical narrative seems to go to some lengths to demonstrate
            that the lack of issue from the Abraham-Sarah union
                        wasn’t Abraham’s problem!
            We’re told that he successfully father’s Ishmael by the slave girl Hagar
                        before Isaac is born to Sarah,
            and that after Sarah’s death he married Keturah
                        and had at least six more children.

And so the drama of this narrative
            isn’t really about Abraham at all, but about Sarah,
            and what God is going to do through her.

She is presented to us as aged, barren,
            shamed, ostracised, ‘not a proper woman’
            done-down and doubting,
            prepared to offer another to her husband in place of herself (16.1-4),
            and laughing at God’s call on her as the source of life for others (18.12).

She is described as being ‘as good as dead’,
            an expression which gives voice to the utter hopelessness and depression
            that she experienced at the hands of a society that measured a woman’s value
            only through the produce of her womb.

And yet, this hope-less woman is the one
            through whom the hope of the world comes to birth.
She is the one through whom the assurance of things hoped for,
            and the conviction of things not seen,
            comes into being.

In many ways she is the archetype of Mary, the mother of Jesus:
            both are women through whom the life of the world comes into being.
            both are women ignored and devalued by society, yet regarded with esteem by God.

This is the message of resurrection,
            and what God does with Sarah,
            he does with the world.

In the story of God bringing new life to birth through one who is ‘as good as dead’
            we glimpse something of the nature of God
            who continually brings new life to birth in hope-less situations,
            who breathes new life into dry bones,
            who will never allow death to have the final word.

This is the God of Abraham and Sarah,
            and this is the God of those who, in Christ, are heirs of the promises of God.

The insight of the preacher of Hebrews
            is that Christ is the fulfilment of the Abrahamic promises (6.13-20)
Christ is the one who, like Abraham, perseveres to the end,
            and Christ is the one through whom
            ‘many nations’ become the inheritors of the promise.

The heirs of Abraham are said, by the preacher,
            to long for a ‘better country’, for a ‘city prepared by God’ (v.16).

The people of faith, who stand in the tradition of Abraham,
            are those who can see their ultimate home with the eyes of faith,
            and who recognise that the world as it is
                        is not the world as it should be,
            and who have faith that the world as it is
                        is not the world as it will be.

The people of faith, who stand in the tradition of Abraham,
            are like nomads in the world,
                        aliens and transients on the earth,
                        passing through like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:
            never fully at home with the status quo,
            because their citizenship is already with the world that is coming into being.

This is not to say that this world doesn’t matter,
            and it certainly doesn’t lead us to a theology
            where our task is to sit tight and wait for glory.

But it is a call to not settle for what is,
            and to keep striving for what can be, for what could be,
            in the faith that what is now
                        is giving way to what will be,
            as God draws the world to himself
                        in fulfilment of his promise to Abraham.

The people of faith are those who never call here ‘home’,
            because they have committed themselves to live for the coming kingdom.
They are anticipating an alternative reality,
            and in Christ they are participating in the dawning reality
            of the heavenly kingdom, which is coming on earth, as it is in heaven.

And so the faithful response of Abraham
            is held up by the preacher of Hebrews
            as the model and paradigm for all those who would live by faith.

And so we come to the fourth example from the life of Abraham,
            the story of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac.

And here we hit a problem. Or at least, I do.
            This is a deeply shocking story.
A father takes his son to a hill,
            and sets out to kill the child and burn his body,
            because he believes God has told him to do this.

Any father who tried this today,
            would be looking at life in prison,
            or at the least a very long spell in a secure medical facility.

It is worth noting that it has always been a shocking story.
            Our horrified reaction to Abraham’s actions
            is not simply the result of modern attitudes towards parenthood.
Fathers have always loved their sons,
            and invested in them their hopes and dreams,
                        and fears and anxieties.
And we have no reason to suppose that Abraham was any different.

And in this story, of his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac,
            we find an exploration of the deepest levels of faith and doubt.
It is as if the narrator leans out of the page
            and says to the unsuspecting reader:
            ‘Would you do as Abraham did?’

And of course, therein lies the trap that the text sets for us.
            If we answer ‘yes’, then there is something deeply wrong with us.
            But if we answer ‘no’, then where is our faith?

And so, having got our attention,
            the story invites us to journey beyond the shock and awe,
            into the depths of our faith response to God,
as we are invited to consider and reflect
            on the response of Abraham.

For Abraham, the willingness to offer his son
            was the final and greatest example of his trust in God.
It was an act of faithful obedience.

It wasn’t merely that God asked Abraham to sacrifice
            one so long-awaited, and so dearly-loved.
Rather, God asked him to sacrifice the very one
            through whom God himself had promised
            to multiply Abraham’s descendants
                        to make him the father of many nations.

What is on the altar is not just a child,
            but Abraham’s very trust in the promises of God.
For Abraham, even death:
            the death of a child – his child,
            the death of hope,
            the death of a future glimpsed but unfulfilled,
even these deaths did not shake his faith
            in God’s faithfulness to his promises.

Because Abraham grasps what Sarah already knows.
            that God is the God of the living, not the dead.
He is the God who brings life from death,
            he is the God of resurrection.

The faith Abraham demonstrated, when he offered Isaac,
            made sense only if he believe that God could raise the dead.

And what is true of Abraham the patriarch,
            is true of all our heroes of the faith.
The Preacher of Hebrews wants his hearers to realise
            that all those who imitate Abraham,
                        and live by faith in the promises God gave him,
            live in the confidence that God brings life from death,
                        and that their lives of faith – our lives of faith –
            bring the resurrecting nature of God to bear in this world of death.

Abraham’s faith that God ‘is able to raise someone from the dead’ (v.19)
            suggests that Isaac,
                        who embodies the many faithful descendants promised to Abraham,
                        also typifies their resurrection.

As Isaac was given life from death,
            so too the many nations
            that constitute the heirs of the promise God made to Abraham.

Of course, it doesn’t need to be explained
            that Isaac was not literally raised from the dead.
Everyone knows how that story ended,
            with a ram in a thicket and a last minute reprive.
But that isn’t the point.

The point is Abraham’s faith
            led Isaac through death to new life
            as a gift from God.

Just as those who are baptised do not literally die
            when they go down into the baptismal pool,
we still speak of them being raised to new life
            when they come up from beneath the waters of baptism.

It’s not about literal death at all.
            Abraham doesn’t kill his child.
Rather, God brings Isaac through death to new life
            in fulfilment of the promise he made to Abraham.
And in this God’s nature is clearly seen,
            and his nature is resurrection.

It is in the resurrection of Christ
            that the promise of Abraham finds its ultimate fulfilment,
and it is through the resurrection of Christ
            that the world is being brought to life,
as those who have been joined to Christ in death and resurrection
            share with him in living the reality of the dawning kingdom,
            living lives of faithfulness
                        to the new world that is coming into being in our midst:
            as the power of death is challenged,
                        as the narrative of sin is re-told,
            and as the hopelessness of the marginalised, the barren,
                        the powerless, and the dispossessed,
            is met with the promise of hope and new life
                        that ever lies before us,

                        beckoning us on, and inviting us in.

No comments: