Archives November 2005

Sermon: Advent Sunday, Year B

Sermon: Advent Sunday, Year B – The Patriarchs

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, I have been signalling it for some time, and I hope that as we begin our walk in Advent, you have brought your Scriptures with you. If we are to become a dynamic, spirit-filled church then we must become a sacramentally-based, bible-inspired church which listens to the word of God and shares in his holy mysteries.
This Advent marks the beginning of that radical journey: a journey which will take us to places which none of us know where it leads us, but which I can guarantee will lead us towards a greater awareness of the ever-present God. It is not necessarily a comfortable journey, but then the Gospel was never a comfortable message.
The Advent Wreath which is lit before us today reminds us of the Patriarchs: the ancestors of the faith who walked with God and who were his first witnesses. Of course, this list is not exhaustive, and God also walked with many others whose names are not recorded in Scripture, just as the names of many of the Saints are now known to God alone.
Of course, some names from the Old Testament clearly form the canon of the patriarch’s: Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, David, these are the names of the great and the good, the unimpeachable heroes of the faith.
But we should not see these patriarchs as unquestionable characters, and we have much to learn from them from their walk of faith, for they were people who questioned God and expressed difficulty with what they were asked to do. Moses, for example, did everything he could to avoid doing what Yahweh wanted him to do, Noah got drunk at the first opportunity, and Abraham, although a man of faith, was not graced by fidelity from the start.
If we look over his life, we see a mixture of success and failure. Knowing that there are so many teachers and former teachers in this congregation, perhaps we should look at Abraham’s life as a school report:
Abraham’s Report Card
Text Test Abraham’s Response Grade
Gen. 12:1 God’s Call He eventually obeyed. C
Gen. 12:10 The Famine He went to Egypt and stumbled. F
Gen. 13:8 Quarrel with Lot He trusted in God’s providence A
Gen. 14:1-16 The War He trusted in God’s protection. A
Gen. 14:23 The Offer of Sodom’s Booty He valued God’s riches. A
Gen. 16 The Waiting on the Promise He tried his own means to fulfil the promise F
Gen. 17 The Covenant of Circumcision He obeyed, not concerned with its impact on the promise A
Gen. 20 Sojourn in the World He went back to his worldly ways. F
Gen. 21 Separation from Ishmael He forewent his work of the flesh. A
Gen. 22 The Sacrifice of Isaac He demonstrated great faith. A+
So, Abraham was one whose long life was filled with a series of challenges from God. Many of us experience challenges in our lives: times when we seem to be asked for too much, to take too much on, to bear heavy burdens of physical, psychological or emotional weight. Sometimes we feel capable of dealing with whatever life throws at us, to take it in our stride or even to step up to the challenge, and at other times we may demur, we may seek an easy way out or a compromise solution, while at others it may be too much for us to bear.
Of all of Abraham’s challenges, and the one which makes him the most worthy of God’s blessing is the last one. Let us turn to the book of Genesis, Chapter 22, verses 1-13.
Out of interest, the division of scripture into chapter and verse happened only in the 12th Century AD to make it easier to do what we are doing now, to be able to find a part of scripture quickly. Do not ever make the mistake of thinking that the author of the text is responsible for them: the author (or authors) of the text only wrote or redacted (edited) in short episodes or stories which redaction critics refer to as pericopes.
Most of the stuff is on the screen, but nothing, no nothing compares to studying the scripture before you. I have a couple of bibles at the front, but next week…
It does not matter that we may have different translations (although for the purposes of these, I draw the line at The Lion Collection of Bible Stories) because each translation is a contribution to the general mix, and a greater understanding, especially as none of us speak very good Hebrew… You will learn more from reading your own version and comparing it to what I am quoting. I use a mixture of texts myself. The best translation from Hebrew and Greek is the Revised Standard and it’s inclusive language sister the New Revised Standard, for modern language without slang I like the NIV or the TNIV (which is version 2.0), but I also enjoy the Contemporary English Version or CEV. I personally had the Good News Version beaten out me at Junior School but it works for many.
Take a moment to examine the pericope about the sacrifice of Isaac.
Close examination of the text of Genesis 22:2
“Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (v. 2).
Everything we want to know about the patriarchs are contained in this single verse, and so we will spend some time looking at it. Each phrase in this command is very significant:
• “Take your son”: Abraham as a parent most likely did not want to hear about a test concerning his son. We parents have our own ambitions and plans for our children. We say, “Oh, I know what’s best for my children,” often ignoring God’s will for our children.
• “your only son”: But wait. Was Isaac Abraham’s “only son”? What about Ishmael? Abraham loved Ishmael, so it must have been painful to Abraham that God did not consider Ishmael as his son. The conception of Ishmael was Abraham’s attempt by his own means to help God fulfil His promise. It was a result of Abraham acting on his own, outside of God’s will. It is a vain pursuit to act outside God’s will. As the Psalmist said: “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labour in vain” (Ps. 127:1). God ignored Abraham’s work of the flesh and considered Isaac to be Abraham’s “only son”. By the way, the consideration of Isaac as Abraham’s “only son” strengthens the typology of the events of this chapter. Abraham’s offering of “his only son” points to God’s offering of “His only Son”: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son” (John 3:16).
• “Isaac”: His name, meaning “he laughs”, becomes sadly ironic now.
• “whom you love”: This is the first mention of the word “love” in the Bible. Appropriately, the first mention of love concerns a father’s love for his only son. Interestingly, in the New Testament, the first mention of the word “love” also concerns the love of a Father for His Son: “And a voice from heaven said, `This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.'” (Matt. 3:17). God emphasizes Abraham’s love for his son. This strengthens the typology. Abraham is asked to sacrifice his only son whom he loves. God sacrificed His only Son, whom He loved and with whom He was well pleased. On another level, challengingly perhaps, perhaps God emphasized Abraham’s love for Isaac because Abraham loved Isaac too much, at the expense of his love for God. Our love for God is to overshadow our love for anything or anyone else (even our family members). Christ Himself said: “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37); and, more radically, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Abraham’s love for Isaac was quite possibly a stumbling block for him, so God, in this chapter, asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, thus testing Abraham’s love for God. God wants all. What or who is your “Isaac”? What or who is getting in your way to God? What or who do you love more than God? Can you offer up to God your “Isaac”: your lust for power, your love for wealth, your obsession with a hobby, even your love for a family member?

Think about this for a moment.
• “go to the region of Moriah”: The region of Moriah is the area where, later on, Jerusalem was to be built. (In 2 Chronicles. 3:1, we are told that the temple was built on Mount Moriah.) Jesus was crucified just outside the city gates, so Golgotha is also in the “region of Moriah.” Many think that Jesus died on the very same mountain that Abraham offered Isaac. This is plausible, especially since God guided Abraham to the exact mountain (“…one of the mountains I will tell you about…”) that Isaac was to be offered.
• “Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering”: This is the test of faith. This command must have been shocking for Abraham to hear, for a few reasons. First, Abraham must have known that the human sacrifices of the pagan religions were detestable to God. Second, the sacrifice of Isaac would seem to nullify the promise of God. God said: “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him” (Gen. 17:19); and then, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Gen. 21:12). At times, we are asked by God to do things that would seem to jeopardize all of our future plans. We have God’s promises; based on them, we have made our plans. We have it all figured out. We know exactly how we are going to fulfil God’s promises. However, it is not for us to fulfil God’s promises; rather, it is for us to obey the will of God. God knows what He is doing, and has the wisdom and power to fulfil His promises. So, Abraham faced a conflict of sense versus faith. And rather than this test of God causing Abraham to disbelieve the promise, Abraham instead looked for a way to reconcile the test with the promise. Paul describes Abraham’s faith: “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:20-21). To help himself in the test, Abraham reasoned a way that God could reconcile the test and the promise. As the writer of Hebrews tells us: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, `It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death” (Heb. 11:17-19)
• “on one of the mountains I will tell you about”: Abraham did not have the luxury of heroic, hasty obedience concerning the test of God, or even choosing where the sacrifice was to be made. Instead, he was made to wait on the Lord concerning the time and the place of the sacrifice, not knowing where and when the end would come. This must have been difficult for Abraham, for he had to contemplate in all its import the distressing action that he was asked to undertake.
Did you perhaps realise that so much could be drawn from a single line of Scripture? Did you appreciate that the whole role of the patriarchs could be set forth from a single line?
This single passage speaks to us of the challenge of God, the sometimes outrageous challenge of God, of the demand it places upon us, and how we are often asked to enter into that challenge without knowing where it will lead us. God does not usually give us the blueprints, which is why we need to be faithful when it doesn’t always turn out as we plan: when this parish takes a radical new direction do you try to embrace it or do you try to subvert it, do you see where it takes us or do you seek to undermine it because it isn’t your idea.
As we embark on our Advent journey, as we seek out the incarnated Lord, we can draw from the example of the patriarchs, and indeed, the patriarch Abraham and we too have the opportunity to become as blessed as Abraham was.

(Advent Wreath Prayer)


Sermon: Ordinary 32, Year A

Sermon: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Texts: Wisdom 6:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“The end of the world is nigh!”

There is a common theme to today’s readings, and that is the uncomfortable truth that it isn’t going to last forever.

The book of wisdom, the teaching of Paul and the parable of the wise and foolish virgins are all concerned with getting ready for the last things. Indeed, in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25 begins the final phase of the evangelist’s message and is concerned with looking towards Our Lord’s passion, resurrection and then his return in Glory, an event which has a technical term: the Parousia.

Even in this day and age, when fire and brimstone is less threatening than nuclear holocaust or terrorist outrage, the notion that it might all go up in a puff of smoke is quite difficult for us in modern society to get our heads around. The man with the “end of the world is nigh” billboard seems as anachronistic as debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or the ensuring comprehensive NHS dental cover for everyone.

The theological term for discussing the parousia is called eschatology. It is concerned with “the last things” and it is not really an obscure theological debate because it must and should concern each and every one of us, for I am afraid that I have to break the news to you: that we’re all going to die.

We are all going to die at some point. Benjamin Franklin once famously said

“Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes”

Benjamin Franklin

Eschatology is a concern for us all, for we are desperate to know what happens after we die. You can see from the letter to the Thessalonians that it was a concern of theirs to Paul, and I only have to open a women’s magazine to find a page of “spiritual enquiries” about the departed: seeking consolation, seeking the help of mediums (media?) to contact the dead, when I believe sincerely that the departed should remain where they are – safe in the loving arms of God. People have genuine spiritual concern about death, which they know they cannot cheat.

The problem we have is that heaven, the last days, the actual being gathered into those loving arms is so difficult for us to imagine, that Christ himself, his evangelists and apostles and many who have followed have had to use such bizarre imagery to try and bring it to a level we can conceive that it appears, especially to modern rational minds, unreal, surreal perhaps.

You only have to read a little of the book of Revelation to wonder what John the Divine was putting in his tea:

Turn to Revelation 5:1-14

I am not going to read through this now, but make a note of it and read it later, and think of how bizarre it all sounds.

So, if worship is strange and unfamiliar in this environment, think how much stranger it will be in the last days. Paul writes vividly to the Thessalonians about everyone being gathered up at the blast of the trumpet.

At the trumpet of God, the voice of the archangel will call out the command and the Lord himself will come down from heaven; those who have died in Christ will be the first to rise, and then those of us who are still alive will be taken up in the clouds, together with them, to meet the Lord in the air. So we shall stay with the Lord for ever. With such thoughts as these you should comfort one another. (1 Thess 4:14-18)

But notice: it does not suggest that anyone will be left behind. It does not imply that God ignores some people. God will give each and everyone of us the opportunity to respond to God, to come to him, whether on this side of the earthly divide or on the other.

This is why Paul reminds us:

With such thoughts as these you should comfort one another
(1 Thess 4:18)

Turn to the book of Proverbs and you will find:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
(Proverbs 9:10)

In the words of the writer of the book of Wisdom (not Solomon itself as was commonly held for this text is only found in the later Greek versions of the Hebrew Scriptures predating Jesus by only a hundred years or so), we need to be ready and waiting for the Lord.

Matthew tells us much the same. Both the book of Wisdom and the Gospel of Matthew encourage us to be: γρηγορεύω (greg-or-you-oh) – to be prepared, to be vigilant for the coming of wisdom – for the coming of the awareness of God, only to find that wisdom – the word of God (the logos) is already there at the gate.

In the same sense, although we wait expectantly as Christians for this strange and marvellous second coming, we need to recognise that in reality, he never left us. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Christ himself tells us in the great commission:

Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples. Baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, (20) and teach them to do everything I have told you. I will be with you always, even until the end of the world.

Matthew 28:19-20

This is especially relevant as immediately after this mass, we baptise four more children into the family of God, into the way of Salvation, but notice: “I will be with you, even until the end of the world”

We are not called to just clean up our acts just before Christ comes on the scene. In Brighton I recall a T-Shirt which tickled me “Jesus is coming – look busy”. We are not called to have everything falsely or artificially sorted in our lives in order to pass inspection: Christ expects us all to deal with it now – to have all our lamps trimmed and ready as the popular phrase of his age said.

• If we have relationship issues within our families, with our neighbours, our friends: he expects us to deal with it.
• If we have issues which need to be brought to God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), then he expects us to come and make our peace with God.
• If we need to deal with uncomfortable things in our lives: addictions, weaknesses, things which have interfered with our relationship with God, then we need to put them aside.

Be ready, not just for some unspecified time in the future when the balloon goes up, but be ready now.

“Live each day as if it were your last” is not a call to hedonism, but a recognition that things which need to be right should be made right now, and not put off.

Yes, the end of the world is nigh, so why not take the opportunity to do something about it?