Friday, 27 June 2014

Abraham’s test

(Genesis 22: 1-14 & Matthew 10: 40-42)

“God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.”
God said to Abraham… ‘take your son & offer him there as a burnt offering’ and Abraham said …?
Nothing. Not a word. No argument, no need for an explanation, no qualms. God said sacrifice your son & Abraham saddles the donkey, loads it with wood, and sets off with Isaac… to kill him. Because that’s what God has just told him to do.
I hope we haven’t heard this story so often that we’ve lost the sense of outrage we should feel.
I have an outraged question. Where is Sarah?
Did Abraham pop into the tent and say ‘I’m just off to make a sacrifice, dear’ and did she even ask ‘what are you sacrificing?’ so that he could say
‘Oh, you know – our son…our only son.. our beloved son… Isaac’. Where is Sarah? Why is there no account of her standing in front of the donkey with an even bigger knife than the one Abraham is carrying, saying ‘put the boy DOWN’.

We might feel we know what this story is about.. God tests Abraham. Abraham has to have faith – has to do what God says – and because we’ve just heard the end of the story we know there’s a ram in the bush & Isaac is perfectly safe all along because ‘God himself will provide’. God tested Abraham – and Abraham passed because he trots off on his donkey with the intention of murdering his son because that’s a perfectly reasonable thing for God to ask, isn’t it?
Except – no, it isn’t.
What sort of God asks a father to sacrifice his son like that? What kind of father silently acquiesces? Abraham has a kind of faith: we might call it blind faith, or total faith, or wild-eyed murderous extremism.
And we only have to look around our world today to see that we need less, not more of that kind of religious extremism.
God tested Abraham.
But what was the test? What kind of faith did God want to see in Abraham – blind extremism or a deep reflective faith?

God and Abraham have quite a few conversations in the book of Genesis.
The Lord comes to Abraham in Harran and says ‘leave your own country and go where I will show you’… and Abraham goes.
The Lord says, in Canaan, ‘I am giving this land to your descendants’ and Abraham builds an altar.
The Lord says to Abraham when he’s settled at the terebinths of Mamre ‘Do not be afraid. I am your shield. Your reward will be very great’ and Abraham says ‘But I’m childless’ and God say to Abraham ‘Look up at the sky & count the stars – so many your descendents will be’ & Abraham put his faith in the Lord.
God says ‘I will give you this land’ and Abraham says ‘how can I be sure?’ and God performs a ceremony to seal the deal.
Then, after Abraham has had a son, Ishmael, with Sarah’s slave girl, because Abraham & Sarah reckon they’re too old for their own children, the Lord says ‘Sarah will have a son’ and Abraham laughs and says ‘Can’t you bless me through Ishmael?’ but the Lord says ‘Sarah will bear you a son’. That son is eventually born – and named Isaac.
And just before the story we started with today the Lord tells Abraham that he is going to destroy the cities of Sodom & Gomorrah. And Abraham argues with God and says ‘what if there are 50 innocent people there? You can’t destroy them’ and God agrees: and Abraham says ‘what if there are 45 innocent people?’ and God agrees he won’t destroy the cities then.. and Abraham goes on and on, 40, 30, 20.. until he gets God to agree that even if there are just 10 innocent people, the cities won’t be destroyed. However the bad news for Sodom & Gomorrah is that they’re all a rotten bunch and God destroys the cities.

Looking at these stories, have you noticed that Abraham seems to be getting increasingly ‘lippy’ with God as time goes on? Maybe it’s that over time Abraham has a relationship with God, in which they talk together about things. So when the Lord tests Abraham & asks for Isaac’s life wouldn’t you expect a ding-dong battle at least as good as the one over Sodom & Gomorrah?
But what God gets is – silence and a saddled donkey.

God tested Abraham. But did Abraham pass the test, or fail it?
Was God looking for blind obedience from Abraham, or trying to start a conversation? You might think we don’t know the answer to that question – but I think there’s a clue in the story itself. When Abraham & Isaac reach the top of the mountain “Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy”.

It is not God who talks to Abraham, tells him to spare Isaac, and points out the ram who will be the sacrifice instead. It is God’s angel, God’s messenger. In fact if you look in the book of Genesis you’ll find that God never speaks to Abraham again. God tested Abraham. And perhaps Abraham failed the test & God decided he’d better not risk telling Abraham anything ever again, because Abraham had stopped asking questions & had begun to do what God said without stopping to think for himself at all.
God tested Abraham.
Was he prepared to accept God’s demands blindly? Or was he still prepared to test what God said against what seemed right and good and reasonable – and indeed to test it against what God had already said because God had promised all these descendants through Isaac and the boy was only 12 years old.

Was God calling Abraham to an extremist, fundamentalist faith? Or to a faith which seeks understanding, an on-going and growing relationship with God?

In a world of extremism, where people offer us clear cut right and wrong – can we pass the test and be prepared to engage with God and grow in deep faith instead?

Meanwhile, Matthew’s gospel gave us Jesus’ answer to the danger of religious extremism and exclusion.
Jesus said, "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me…whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple -  truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."
Jesus offers a totally different approach to life from the approach of fundamentalism. In place of judgement of others, of exclusion, of seeking to know who is right and who is wrong, Jesus tells us to offer welcome. Abraham shows us that people of faith are required to engage engage in relationship with God, not las out blindly, and Jesus shows us that people who follow Jesus are required to engage in relationship with others – to offer welcome to the lonely and a cup of water to the thirsty.
The answer to religious extremism is the same as it has always been – love God and love your neighbour.

May we be challenged to live this week and all our lives as true followers of Jesus. To God’s glory.  Amen.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Pentecost: the Spirit surprises

Acts 2: 1-21

What were the disciples expecting on the day of Pentecost?

They were expecting a celebration in the temple – Pentecost was a harvest festival in the time of Jesus. 50 days  (‘pente coste’) after the first reaping of the harvest, baskets of grain were brought to the temple so that thanks could be given to God for the fruitful harvest. It was also known as the festival of Shavu’ot – a time to give thanks to God for the giving of the Torah – God’s law: 50 days after the Passover. The Passover celebrated the freedom of God’s people from slavery – and then 50 days later the people gave thanks for God giving them the spiritual gift of the law to live by.

It’s because it was a big festival that there were people in Jerusalem from all over the known Jewish world – people from all those places in our reading that are so difficult to pronounce – representing all four points of the compass.
People had come from North South, East & West to give thanks to God for the gift of the harvest and for the gift of the law of God.
The disciples were expecting to join with the crowds to celebrate what God had done in the past – by giving His people the law – and what God continued to do by making the earth fruitful, year by year.

The disciples thought they knew what was going to happen on that day of Pentecost –the usual celebration, in the usual way…
But then .. God’s Holy Sprit comes. An unexpected, alarming, startling, surprising new gift. The disciples were all together in one place and were filled with the power of the wind and fire of God’s power – and began to talk in different tongues. Suddenly the story of Jesus bursts out of them, the story of what God has done for his creation breaks free from the usual form of being celebrated, and people all around hear the good news of God’s love shown in Jesus.

Pentecost defies all our explanations and descriptions – we are told that they heard something like the sound of a rushing wind that filled the house
and that something like tongues of fire came and touch them. The people who witness it say it seems like they are drunk: but Peter denies that.
Whatever is actually happening it is the momentous moment when the followers of Jesus are given the power they need to be witnesses to the gospel Jesus lived.
That day of Pentecost surprises them as God acts and send the gift of the Holy Spirit to everyone there so that they can all witness to the whole world.

Often when we hear the story of the disciples speaking in tongues at Pentecost it is contrasted with the story of the tower of Babel, which ends with human languages being mixed up.

It is an ancient story, from the 12th chapter of Genesis, and tells of human attempts to achieve something together by their own power. It is a story from a time when it is said that all the human beings spoken the same language and these people decide to build a tower to reach up to God.
One way of reading what happens next is that God decides to punish humanity for their pride by mixing up their languages so they can no longer co-operate.
But another way of reading the story it is that God knows that people staying together and building upwards isn’t the way to reach what’s important. God wants to teach people that they should, instead, celebrate their diversity and go out into the world to find the wonders of God’s creation. In this second version, different languages are seen as a gift to humanity which affirms and embraces human variety. People are sent out into all four corners of the world with a rich diversity of language, to find God wherever they go.

People think they know how to reach God – build up: but God’s gift surprises them – and tells them to reach out.

Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised the disciples so much to see and experience what God does at Pentecost. The God who loves diversity and who continually reaches out to touch and empower people does what he did at Babel : he sends people out with new languages to share the good news of his presence in the earth.

Jesus had already promised his disciples that he would send the gift of the Holy Spirit. They have seen him crucified and killed, they have seen him risen from death and living, and they have seen him ascend back into heaven – returning to God the Father. Now the Holy Spirit comes with power to tell the whole world that Jesus is living and with them in a way which is no longer confined to a body – but is a reality all the same.

So what are we expecting on this day of Pentecost?

The usual celebration of the ‘birthday of the church’? – whether that is the church universal – celebrating the day the followers of Jesus first had the courage and the power to reach out to others – or the church anniversary here at Holt.
Do we think we are thanking God for what he has done over the years – or what he did long ago?
Or are we ready to receive a new gift today – the surprising truth that God is ready to bless and touch us with the same gift of the Spirit?

What might that gift mean..?

At the 1968 Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Bishop Ignatius of Latakia, spoke of the Holy Spirit in this striking and memorable way:

‘Without the Holy Spirit God is far away.
Christ stays in the past,
The Gospel is simply an organisation,
Authority is a matter of propaganda,
The Liturgy is no more than an evolution,
Christian loving a slave mentality.
But in the Holy Spirit
The cosmos is resurrected and grows with the
   birth pangs of the kingdom.
The Risen Christ is there,
The Gospel is the power of life,
The Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating science,
Mission is a Pentecost,
The Liturgy is both renewal and anticipation,
Human action is deified.’

I hope we can dare to be open to the Holy Spirit today.
To see what difference God’s power can make to our
Idea of God, our experience of Christ and our way of being church.
May it be so – to God’s praise and glory.