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Pressing On

(a sermon for March 17, 2019, the 2nd Sunday of Lent, based on Genesis 15:1-6 and Philippians 3:12-4:1)

It was Mark Twain who said it:  “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Now, I recognize that that’s an odd and somewhat counterproductive way to start a sermon (!), so allow me, please, to rephrase Twain’s words in a bit more of a theological fashion:  that it can be aptly stated that true faith and trust in God comes in understanding that God’s word is firm and secure, and that his promises are true, even when all appearances might suggest otherwise!

I mean, it’s one thing to believe in the providence of a loving, giving God when everything in your life is going well and the future looks bright with promise; quite another when the days are dark and grey and everything all around you just seems to be hurdling out of control. Difficult to find “good news” in the midst of bad situations; hard to find wholeness when there’s so much in this world that’s broken; seemingly impossible, at times, to hold on to a heavenly vision of peace and love when here on earth there are continually those who insist on acting out of hate, terror and pure evil: I ask you, how does anyone “keep the faith” in times such as these?

And yet, we do.

We’re here, after all; we’re gathered together in this sanctuary once again to lift up the holy name of God, to give God our thanks and praise, and to embrace his sure and certain promises of life and of unending hope.  We’ve come with our prayers and petitions, seeking wisdom and courage for the living of these days – indeed, for the facing of this very hour (!) – so that we might go forth from this place today after the manner of Paul in our text for this morning, “press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  And then, a cup of coffee or two later, we’re right back out there: back to the world and all the messiness and utter uncertainties of daily life, “pressing on” with faith and trust, all because somewhere deep within ourselves we have reckoned that what God has said and what he has promised is so, and that God should be counted as righteous.

Granted, that might sound a bit audacious, shall we say – I mean, who are we to decide whether or not God Almighty, the Creator and Heaven and Earth and the God of the Ages is in fact a righteous God – but I’m here to tell you this morning that maybe this is how we keep believing in times like these.  After all, in the words of the Rev. Dr. Sara Koenig, who is professor of Biblical Studies at Seattle Pacific University, “Belief is hard enough when there’s a delay between God’s promises and their fulfillment.  It would be nigh impossible if the God in who we believe is not trustworthy, is not [by our reckoning] righteous.”

Now, lest you think that what I’m saying here is another example of our garden variety post-modern skepticism, we need to understand that there’s actually great biblical precedent for this kind of discernment.  Consider the response of Abram to God’s call in our reading from Genesis this morning: “’Do not be afraid, Abram,’” says God to Abram in a vision. “’I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’”  But how does Abram respond?  “’O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  Understand, friends, this is no simple answer; this is the biblical equivalent of Abram rolling his eyes before the Lord and saying, “Really?  Seriously?”

For remember, this is not the first time that God has made such a promise unto Abram: the first time, back in chapter twelve, God had already called him to go from country and kindred and his father’s house to a place yet to be determined!  “’I will make of you a great nation,’” God assures Abram, and “’I will bless you, and make your name great.’”  And, of course, Abram went (with his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot along with him); and at 75 years old, no less!  It was a difficult, if not altogether improbable journey; but they did go, by faith and bolstered in the assurance the promise made would soon be the promise fulfilled.

However, as we pick up the story today. a fair amount of time had passed by (about 10 years, in fact), and frankly, not much had progressed on that front – there’d been famine, a conflict with the Pharaoh of Egypt, a few inter-family struggles with his nephew Lot, and a whole lot of wandering around – but as of yet there was no sign of that “great nation” that God had promised.  And Abram… well, he’s starting to lose patience; after all, it’s not like either he or his wife Sarai were of child-bearing years to begin with when all this started, and now… well, it had gotten to the point where Abram’s thinking that the only chance he’s got for any heir at all is to adopt one of his servants for that purpose!  The truth is that right about now, Abram’s faith in God and in God’s promises was stretched to the limit; because, as we’ve said before, it’s hard to believe in what, but all outward appearances, just “ain’t so.”

Of course, the great part of this story is that God doubles-down on the promise! Immediately God takes Abram outside, points him to the sky, and challenges him to start counting stars “if you’re able to count them;” because Abram, my friend, that’s how many children you’re going to have!  Incredible; ten years out on this journey, not a single child yet, Abram and Sarai are getting older with every passing day, but still here’s God promising that “with the passing of generations the descendants of Abram and Sarai would number in the thousands or even the millions!”  Clearly, God was taking the long view here; but nonetheless, to quote Ralph Klein this time: “How like God,” he writes. “When the promise was hard to believe, God upped the ante.”

And the best part?  Abram believed!  He believed; and in fact, this account from Genesis makes a point of saying that not only that he “believed the LORD, [but] that [he] reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  And that’s where this story gets really interesting: you see, there’s always been some question on exactly how this verse ought to be translated.  On the one hand, it can be rightly assumed that because Abram believed the LORD, thus the LORD reckoned that belief of Abram as righteousness, in that he trusted God with everything in his life and because of faith was worthy of the promises made.  However, the original Hebrew in this verse really only translates this as to how Abram believed and how he reckoned it as righteousness, suggesting that it might well be that Abram was reckoning God as being righteous; in other words, because God was intent on making his promise unto Abram even greater than before, Abram knew that God was worthy of faith and trust, and thus could believe, and press on to where God was leading him.

Granted, there’s a fair amount of ambiguity in that admittedly very small piece of translation, but the point is very clear and unalloyed:  that God is righteous and that his promises, however delayed or unfulfilled they might seem to us at times, are sure and certain.  It was because of the certainty that God would make good on his promises that Abram could believe, and so it is for you and for me today; ours is the God who is worthy of our trust, and thus we press on… no matter what.

Though I can in no way relate to it personally (!), I’ve always been drawn to the rather athletic imagery that Paul uses in the reading we’ve shared this morning from Philippians; that idea of “press[ing] on toward the goal,” that is, the heavenly call of God, being something akin to a race; as The Message translates it, “I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward – to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”  It’s an apt comparison, to be sure; a life of faith, as in the running of a race, is marked by a sense of movement toward something more, and the urgency to get there; to reach the goal, to win the prize.  And yet, is it not also true that the race is not merely to the swift; it also matters how you run the race.  As Paul himself points out, it means “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead;” it requires a certain maturity of mind, body and spirit, as well as the ability to “stay on the right track,” as it were.  And perhaps above all, it takes staying wholly focused on where you’re headed; and yes, as the saying goes, it means keeping “your eyes on the prize!”

You don’t have to be a marathon runner to understand that! In fact, I remember as a young man spending time out in the Maine woods with my father, and how he used to tell that if I ever found myself “turned around” out there in the woods – which was the term we used for getting lost in the woods (!) – the key was never to panic and certainly never to just start wandering aimlessly; but rather to take out your compass, calmly figure out what direction you should be heading and then take a bead in that direction on some very nearby landmark: a rock or a fallen tree; any location that’s clear and attainable.  And then you walk over to that tree or rock, you stop and you take out your compass once again, and take another bead toward another nearby landmark; repeating this process again and again until eventually you find yourself back on the familiar pathway that leads homeward.  It might take you awhile; and for a time along that journey the way will almost certainly seem unfamiliar at best.  But if you stay true to the point of the compass, pressing on in the right direction as opposed to backtracking or going around in circles, you will eventually, if slowly, reach your true destination.

I’ll ask again:  how does one keep the faith in times such as these?  How are you and I to be pressing on toward the goal of living our lives with faith and integrity when it seems like everything around us and often within us would seek to tear us away from what we believe?  Well, it certainly begins with believing God and believing in his righteousness; understanding, in every good and lasting sense, that there is more to our lives than the here and now, and that the troubles of this world, of our lives and of this age are not the end of the story, and that God’s promises will come to pass in fullness in God’s good time.  Like “Father Abraham” before us, we need to remember that even if at times we have trouble believing a promise, God is ever and always at work making the promise even better.

But as much as we are to believe in God’s great providence in leading us to the promised land of our life and living; it is also crucial that we stay focused on the journey itself.  For life is indeed filled with all manner of “bad situations” that can easily get us “turned around” along the way and away from where God would have us go.  It might be the stuff of sin and guilt, of unresolved conflict and old hurts that have never healed.  It could be the kind of worldly ways and means that do weigh heavily in keeping us on track:  money troubles, health issues, broken relationships; and this is to say nothing of the constant barrage of anger and hatred that would daily challenge our belief in a perfect love that casts out all fear. There is so much in this world and in our lives that would seek to tear us away from God’s righteousness and our heavenly call in Christ Jesus; and that is why it is so crucial not only in these moments of prayer and worship, but even more so in all the moments yet to come, to stop… figure out where we are and then, slowly, deliberately and above all, prayerfully take a bead as where we go next; preparing ourselves to press on with love, and peace, and the otherworldly joy that comes from true righteousness; all the while standing firm in the Lord along every part of the journey.

The journey continues, beloved… may it truly be a blessing as we go; and may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on March 17, 2019 in Epistles, Faith, Lent, Life, Old Testament, Paul, Sermon

 

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Blessed to Be a Blessing: Blessed on the Journey

IMAG0246(a sermon for October 19, 2014, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost and Stewardship Sunday; last in a series, based on Genesis 12:1-4a and Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16)

“So Abram went, as the LORD had told him.”

It’s been said that this single verse from Genesis represents “the pivot on which [all of] history turns,” in that up until this point, the Biblical story is all about the universal story of our humanity in the sight of God;  regarding humanity’s very creation and its subsequent fall from grace.  But now it becomes this very specific story of God’s efforts to lead his people back; it’s the start of the whole history of this great nation” called Israel, and the beginning of a story of divine salvation that has its culmination in Jesus Christ!  And the beauty part is that all of it hinges on the response of one rather obscure 75 year-old man who, truth be told, was fairly gladly headed toward his retirement years; and this without having much of anything at all to show for it!

The thing about this particular biblical story, friends, is that we do tend to portray Abram – or Abraham, as he’s known later on – in very heroic terms: the brave man who boldly answers God’s call to go a far country; setting out on a journey to the unknown while waving farewell to kith and kin, all for the sake of this noble quest of a “great nation” and a blessing that would not only extend to him and to his future heirs, but also to “all the families of the earth.”  When we read it that way, it feels to us like the stuff of great adventure – it’s Homer’s “Odyssey,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Trek” all rolled up into one (!) – but ultimately that doesn’t really tell the story at all!  For look closely, and what you really have here in Genesis is a long and protracted narrative of this elderly nomad out in the wilderness – just a wandering shepherd, really – with no prospects, no heirs and no land to speak of, save for a small patch of scrub brush that his late father had left him; and yet who heard God’s call along with God’s promise of great blessing and moreover, believed it. And so, amazingly, “Abram went, as the LORD had told him,” with wife Sarai and nephew Lot in tow, setting off toward the land of Canaan.

And the rest, as they say, is history… and, yes, blessing.

Of course, it all didn’t happen overnight; for that matter, it didn’t all happen over the course of a lifetime!  Read on in Genesis and you find out that the journey of Abraham and Sarah was indeed fraught with, shall we say, “bumps in the road.”  Turned out that Canaan was not their final destination; the whole time they were there they lived like strangers in a foreign country, living in tents and always ready to move.  There were years of famine spent in Egypt, during which time Abram sought to pass off Sarah as his sister rather than his wife to save his own skin; eventually Lot went off on his own to do his own thing which also led to some amount of strife in the family; what’s more, there was political and social intrigue in spades; and then there was that whole matter of Abram’s promised descendants being as many as the number of stars in the sky or grains of sand on the beach, which was interesting that given by this time Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90 and they still didn’t have any children!

Frankly, it was enough for even the most stalwart follower of God to throw in the towel and to say, “enough is enough already!”  But here’s the point and the good news:  Abraham and Sarah held fast to the promise.  No, it wasn’t all happening in the way and on the schedule they would have wanted, and they could have certainly done without all the problems they were still facing on the way.  But it was happening; the blessing was real and it was unfolding right before them!  Somehow, you see, Abraham and Sarah understood that this promise of God was also a call; a call for them to move forward, to go where God was leading them and to do the things that God had set forth for them to do along the way.  And they also understood that despite the twists and turns and occasional setbacks, and as hard as it was at times to accept or to understand, all those promised blessings would be revealed… on the journey.

And if you want a word for that, friends, it’s faith… as Paul defines it in our reading from Hebrews this morning, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

You know, one of the great things about our having been focused over the last few weeks on how you and I are “blessed to be a blessing;” is that we’ve been able to really celebrate the multitude of ways God has blessed us as persons, as people and especially as the church!  But the thing is, what we learn in Abraham’s story is that blessing always goes hand in hand with faith; and the truth is that where God’s promises are concerned there will almost always be some sort of journey, some sort of adjustment, even some sort of change involved which will require from us faith.  And that’s where the challenge enters in for us: for whereas blessing is easy and good and wonderful to receive – and even better to share – the faith that is required for us to get there can often be rather daunting for us, if not downright difficult!

David Steele, in a book entitled “History, Herstory, Ourstory,” affirms that most of us have fairly clear, if somewhat mistaken, ideas of what having faith looks like.  “We’re pretty sure,” he writes, “that if a person has faith, he’s gonna be pretty well off.  She’ll have a nice family, the kids will turn out well …but most of all, [they’ll] feel secure and know PEACE OF MIND.”  But when Abram responds to God’s call “to leave the familiar and set off on a great adventure …he takes on new challenges, new headaches.  His life becomes more complicated, less secure.  He moves into the unknown.  God never lets him settle down.  And the Bible calls that Faith!”  In the end, Steele says, “our ideas that faith means a whole lot of peace and quiet, prosperity and tranquility don’t hold much water when we get to looking at Abraham.”

Simply put, our blessings come from God and they are revealed and received as we walk with God on this journey of life: but to hold fast to God as we make our way through the inevitable and countless twists and turns we’re going to encounter on the way requires our faith. But understand that when I’m talking about faith here, I’m not referring to a mere belief in God; this is not some spiritual/intellectual exercise that says that since I know that God exists then all I have to do is sit here and wait for any and all blessings to shower down upon me (!). To seek God’s blessing is ultimately not to engage in “pie in the sky” wishful thinking!  No, when I talk about faith being required, I’m talking about the faith of Abraham who believed God; who heard God’s call to go and then “set out, not knowing where he was going,” but always knowing that God’s promises were real even as the journey went on and on; “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”  

In other words, he did it: old Abraham, and Sarah along with him, took the leap of faith, answered God’s call and then held fast to God in every step that followed; and because of this, nothing would ever be the same again!  And that’s important, not only in terms of the biblical story, but also for our lives; yours and mine:  as Sarah Dylan Breuer writes, “Having faith is not about trying to convince yourself that you are convinced of something.  You don’t know you have enough faith when the needle doesn’t leap on a lie-detector test as you say, ‘My journey will birth a people, and we will have a home.’  You know you’ve got faith when, however your heart pounds as you do it and whatever fears you have, you take the next step toward the desert.  Your heart will follow your feet, and you will become more fully the person God sees as your true identity.”

Or to put it another way, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18); or, “be doers of the word and not merely hearers,” (James 1:22); or, for that matter, “where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) To have faith, you see – to believe God – means that your life is directed accordingly.

I say all this to you this morning because it seems to me that if we’re truly “blessed to be a blessing,” then that requires of us more than mere lip service; and ultimately – and don’t misunderstand me here, especially given that this is Stewardship Sunday, after all (!) – it requires even more than our pledge cards, our offerings and our commitments of time and talent; for while those are very good things indeed, and we do thank you so much,  in truth all of this represents one step of a larger journey on which each one of us here is traveling. “To be a blessing,” you see, requires our whole lives; not just the “Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m.” part of our lives, not simply the “spiritual piece” that we seek to fit into all the rest of the commitments that fill up our daily lives.  No, this requires everything, beloved; it means that each one of us are to devote ourselves to taking what we’ve been given in such abundance by God on the journey of our lives and then letting it be transformed into opportunities for God’s work to be done with and for others.  It’s living our lives in such a way that when God calls, we… go!

Now, if that sounds hard… well, it is!  Also unnerving at times, often inconvenient and sometimes even exhausting!  But here’s the thing about our “believing God” and actually stepping out in faith: the blessings revealed on that journey of faith are only exceeded by the wonder of what happens when those blessings are shared.  And I know that’s true because I’ve seen it.  Like, for instance, when someone who’s been struggling and lonely and trying to make sense of what’s been happening in their lives comes into this sacred place and finds support and friendship; like in one of those beautifully “unscripted” moments we have around here when one of our kids completely derails the minister’s children’s message for the day, and yet somehow manages in utmost clarity to say or do exactly the thing that needs to be said and done at that moment; like when there’s some sort of need or some manner of emptiness emanating from within or without in this family of faith and beyond – but then, suddenly, miraculously, joyfully and lovingly, the need is met and the emptiness is… gone.

Friends, in my two and a half years as your pastor I’ve seen this unfold here time and time again; moments of miracle and wonder that came about because God’s blessings received became God’s blessings shared.  I’ll say it one more time: at East Church by the grace of God and to the glory of Jesus Christ we are truly blessed to be a blessing! But that having been said (again!), we also need to know that our journey as God’s people here on Mountain Road is only just beginning; that there are many blessings that even now God is calling for us to share in the months and years ahead.

It’ll be a long road, to be sure, and it’s apt to be challenging for us as a congregation; and yes, it’s going to take a fair amount of commitment – financial and otherwise – as we go (don’t think we’re completely done talking about stewardship, folks!); believe me, it is going to require faith for us to start out on this next part of the journey, and moreover for us to keep going where God will be leading us.  But they don’t call us “the little church that can” for nothing; and besides, won’t the blessings we receive on the journey and by faith be well worth the effort?

So, then… let’s go!

And may our thanks be to God as we do!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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