Groaning Trust

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 2nd July 2017

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13

The story of the sacrifice of Isaac has been a troubling one for scholars since the day it was presented as a text.  In oral and written traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and social scientific study this story has caused problems for thousands of years.  I mean, what is this story trying to say?  What is the take-home message from such an horrific account?

Some have said that the point is God’s definitive rejection of human sacrifice.  That in a time and place where children were sacrificed to gods in the Ancient Near East, the instruction of Elohim as God is called here, to first bind Isaac on the altar and then to so gloriously redeem him with a last-minute shriek from an angel and the placement of a nearby ram, is clear.  “No more boys, just rams please,” thus saith the Lord.  But if that is the point, that Elohim does not need or want children killed in worship, why make such a big show of it?  Poor Abraham and Isaac to be pawns in such a role-play.  The God of Abraham and Isaac, and later of Jacob, comes out as a new type of deity, but this God is still a monster who thinks nothing of terrifying the most faithful of worshippers to make a point about God’s own generous nature.

So, no, I don’t think it’s that at all.  God could have just said “thou shalt not kill thy children for my sake” and been done with it.  This week-long sermon illustration which culminates at the point of a father’s dagger over his son, his dear son, the son whom he loves who is tied up and terrified is unnecessary and is therefore extremely cruel.

So, it must be something else: so why this story, and why so early in the Hebrew tradition?  Remember that we are in Genesis 22 here, that’s page 15 of the Bible in front of you.

I think that the question is actually for the worshippers of God, and that it is framed by the thought “can we be trusted with God’s future”? Abraham was prepared to trust God even with the death of his dearly loved son.  But more than the death of his boy, Abraham’s sacrifice put into jeopardy the promise of God that Abraham would be the father of many descendants, indeed of many nations.  With Ismael sent off with Hagar years ago, and Isaac soon to be a charred corpse, how was God going to provide this nation?  Now I am sure that Abraham had faith for another son, after all he’d had sons at 75 and 100 years of age, but the promise had been through Isaac and now Isaac was to be slain and cremated.

So, in asking whether we can be trusted with God’s future I wonder whether the real question is whether we trust God with God’s promise.  Not that any of us would dare to sacrifice our child, or to even set off on the journey without first checking back with God in prayer: but what if God asked us to do something which would put in jeopardy the unique and divine promise made to you?  Would you, do it?  Would you ask God for clarification first?  Or would you assume that this voice was a temptation or an instance of spiritual warfare and just ignore the call to a different sort of obedience?

I wonder whether you would think a call to you in the way that God called to Abraham was a step to far.  Is this one of those “do not lead me into temptation” or “save me in the time of trial” situation we pray about in the Lord’s prayer, asking not for an easy life but for a life where God’s testing does not push us over the edge?  In other words, is this a test you would definitely fail?  Is this moment a step beyond Gethsemane where even the Christ who lives in you would hand the cup back to God and say, “no Father, just no, you’ve asked too much this time, even of me.”  I believe that such an act is outside the love of God, and therefore inconsistent with the one who is utterly dependable.  Yet Abraham saw light where there was just blackness and chose to trust God even when God seemed self-contradicting.  This is extraordinary faith.

So, what do we do when God is saying yes and no to the same thing?  I know that if a voice in his prayers had told my father, at any time in the last 45 years, to “take Damien into the hills, slit his throat and burn his corpse”, that my dad would have had a very hard time believing that that voice was God.  And even if he did believe, I’m pretty sure that would have been an instruction too far: again “no Lord, not even you can ask me to do that, I won’t do it.”  That instruction is inconsistent with the God we know, and who has been revealed to us in Jesus, scripture, Creation, and the history of the world and theology.  So, it’s a pretty safe bet that if you hear an instruction to kill somebody it’s not God who is telling you that.  But Abraham didn’t know that, Abraham did not have the Bible, or Jesus, or even Judaism to tell him the way of God.  I don’t know if child sacrifice was part of Abraham’s earlier life in Sumer, and that the revelation that the new god he had followed into Canaan was that sort of a god was a shock to him.  I mean if the gods of Sumer wanted child sacrifice why shouldn’t this new god demand it too?  If you didn’t know any better, and Abraham may not have known any better, why not?

So, here’s two things we can do to be ready when our trust of God takes us beyond the edge or Reason, and then beyond the edge of Faith itself.

  1. Know God.
  2. Burrow deep into God and really listen.

How long must I wait for an answer says David in Psalm 13.  This is the prayer of a desperate man, a man who is in dire straits, a man who feels abandoned and alone.  This is the prayer of a man who needs the assurance and encouragement of the God he knows to exist and love him, but who is strangely and painfully absent in this moment.  I know this feeling.  Oh boy, do I know this feeling.  “Where are you God?  Where the hell are you?  I know you’re not in hell, because I am, and you aren’t here!!  So, where God?!!”  Have any of you been there?  Yep, me too: me two hundred.  My commentaries suggest that Psalm 13 is a textbook prayer of complaint and confident praise.  In other words, if you want to have a justified whinge at God, or even about God in God’s hearing, do it this way.  Four times in Psalm 13:1-2 David asks how long.  How dare God, my God in 13:3, forget and hide from me when God should consider and answer me?  Is this sounding familiar to you?  Have you been there?  I have been there: this is an advantage to you because if you ever find yourself in Hell you can give me a call; I have been there and I know the way back.  But you don’t need to call me (although you are always welcome to), the map for home is found in 13:5-6.  Trust in God’s steadfast love, indeed sing of it because God is worthy of our trust and God will deliver you.  In all my trips to hell God has never failed to bring me back.  David has this testimony, and so have I.  And so, I believe, has Abraham.

This is why it is important to know God.  You cannot trust someone you do not know, and you cannot trust someone deeply if you don’t know him or her intimately.  I do not have the most steadfast faith in God, but I have the most steadfast faith I have ever had in God.  And God’s faith in me has never wavered, even if my faith in God’s faith in me has.  I sometimes wonder how God could trust me with such an awesome task as I have been given, and I begin to doubt myself.  I know God can do it, but I doubt that God can do it through me because I am so fragile.  That is where God must do the trusting on my behalf too.

But here is where the struggle is.  If we know God like David did, and like Abraham did, then it can be very hard to trust God when God goes missing or when God commands something utterly ungodly.  And that is why, when the world turns against us, despite our best efforts in discipleship, we must go deeper.  “I know you are faithful Lord”, we might pray, “but right now I am frightened and confused.  I am going to trust you more, Amen.” Psalm 13 for modern readers.  But what happens when there’s just more tunnel ahead, and when you find yourself a month further along life and you’re praying, “still alone and afraid Lord, but still trusting,” and then another month and another after that?

I have faced circumstances when I was confident that I was going ahead with God’s favour and in the path God had set for me.  This is not a story of me being assured and wrong, arrogant and errant, not at all.  I look back on these particular circumstances and say, “you know what, I was doing God’s bidding there”, but still it went pear-shaped.  Now I have had the arrogant and misinformed times before, and the solution to those is simple.  Get up, apologise to God, shake off the dirt from when you fell over, and walk with God for a while, perhaps hand-in-hand.  But what if you were doing that, walking with God hand-in-hand, on God’s road, talking with God, tracking toward the opened door which was bedecked with welcome signs and flashing arrows, and as you reach it the door is slammed in your face from the inside.  Slammed so hard it breaks your nose, and breaks your grip on God’s hand even though God is standing right there wanting to lead you through that door.

Then what do you do?

Then who do you trust.  Or a more betterer question, then how do you trust?

If you know God, then this is another instance of “burrow deep and listen”.  God’s plans for you can be ruined by other people, that can happen.  God is never defeated by this, and you needn’t be either, if you stay close to God, but I have no doubt that God is frustrated by this.  In the times when this has happened to me God’s answer to my broken-hearted, tear-flooding cry of “what the actual?” has been deep, deep assurance and comfort.  The last time this happened God’s actual words to me were “that is not what I wanted to happen, you were right in pursuing the course you did.  But you and I together are going to honour the decision made, and you are going to fulfil your call and do the work set for you through another channel.”  Never let it be said that God does not have a plan-B.  In a world where women and men have the freedom to make mistakes, especially mistakes which frustrate God’s plans for strangers, there is always another way for God.

If you have stuffed up, God will rescue you and set you on the right path.

If other people have stuffed you up, God will rescue you and set you on another path, which becomes the right path because God walks it with you.

God had no need of a plan-B for Abraham in this situation.  Plan-A was the test of his faith and the fulfilment of the promise through Isaac and that was allowed to happen because of Abraham’s faithfulness.  God also had no need of a plan-B for Isaac in this situation, Abraham did not kill him.  But I have no doubt that there were plan-B moments in these men’s lives, and I am certain that David’s life as soldier and then king had many B-Road detours.

So, if God asks you to do something stupid, go with what you know of God.  You know more about God than either Abraham or David did.  But more importantly, if life puts you in a situation which just so obviously wrong in the company of the God you know and whom you know loves you, stay close.  God is unstoppable, but only because God is also agile enough to get around human stupidity, stubbornness, and selfishness.

There’s still no better way than to trust and obey.

But please, don’t actually kill your sons.  That’s just wrong.

Amen.

It’s All A Bit Ordinary (Pentecost 2A and Ordinary Sunday 11A)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 18th June 2017.

Genesis 18:1-15

Today is the day between days.

Today is the “Easter Saturday” of June.  It’s not the “Holy Saturday”, the day between God’s Friday and Resurrection Day when we sit in vigil awaiting the return of our Lord in triumph from his ravaging of Hell.  No, today is not that day.  Today is “Easter Saturday”, the Saturday at the end of Easter week when the moment of resurrection and chocolate has passed, the bunting is looking frayed, the coloured foil detritus from our body weight in refined sugar is looking on accusingly, and it’s all a bit silly now that we are still naming the days at all.

Of course, it is not Easter Saturday at all.  For starters, today is Sunday.  For seconders, it is the second Sunday after Pentecost, so we’re not even in the Easter season any more.  The liturgical directory suggests that our chapel should be dressed in green, not white, if we even bother with such things, because today is really nothing special.

Last week was Trinity and we celebrated the three-in-one nature of our God.  I spoke of how God is made of different stuff to us, and of how Jesus set aside the stuff of God to be shaped and embodied in the stuff of humanity.  I also spoke of how Jesus’ being shaped of human stuff means that God knows what it is to experience human emotions like grief, pain, risk, death, and restoration.  Stirring stuff.

The week before last was Pentecost and we celebrated the birth of the Church in wind, fire, exultant worship, and inter-racial, intra-faith extravagant declaration of the salvific purposes of God in the world.

Next week we will celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Uniting Church.  Nor just a date on a calendar but a reminder of the century-long effort of Australasian Protestants to form a new nation and a new church for that nation.  We will remember that while church union occurred seventy-six years after the federation of our six colonies the desire of our forebears had been there all along.  We will remember them.

Wondrous days!  Hallelujah!  Our God reigns!  Our God pours out God’s spirit on women and men, young and old, urban and rural, local and tourist, wealthy and povertous; Euro and Asian and Koori and Anglo and African and American and all combinations of the same.  Our God takes on human form to reveal to us the wonder of God’s self, God’s ways, God’s nature, God’s plans, and our worth and value in God’s eyes.  Our ancestors responded to this great unifying vision of God the perichoretic one and sought in the birth of a new nation, with a continent for a country and a country for a continent, an expression of Church to match this great drive forward into the wonderful twentieth century of Victorian enterprise (by which I mean the age and its dear queen) and Victorian victory (by which I mean the feats of that wondrous colony, the jewel in her majesty’s crown, Marvellous Melbourne and Australia Felix betwixt the Murray’s River and Bass’s Strait).

Heady days to come next week!

And then there’s today!!  “The Second Sunday After Pentecost: Ordinary Sunday 11, Year A”. Doesn’t the very name of this day set your heart aflame?  Think of those great words of encouragement I spoke to you last month, which I first heard in the global head offices of the Church Missionary Society, CMS, in Waterloo in London, in June 2001.  “God, you have ignited a spark within each of us, now dear Lord we pray, water that spark!”

[Snort.]

Hmm.  I dunno about you but if anything is going to “water my spark” it is the thought of “The Second Sunday After Pentecost: Ordinary Sunday 11, Year A.” I mean, it isn’t even the Queen’s Birthday long weekend.  And at least you people only hafta show up; I’m supposed to build an engaging service of worship around this profound and lofty concept and to write a sermon to make it sound interesting.  (How am I doing so far?)  I mean, you know that I came straight to you from University.  I have more degrees than a compass, but I’ll admit it, I am desperately searching for God’s direction for today.  Today is the most boring Sunday in June.

So how are you feeling?  A bit ordinary?  Me too.

[Sigh, big blowing exhale.]

[Pause].

[Slap lectern.]

Righto then, let’s look at the scripture passage selected for this auspicious day in the lectionary.

Bang!  [Clap, thumb up.]

In Genesis 18:1-15 we read one of the most mind-blowingly unordinary stories in the Bible.  It jumps straight in at Genesis 18:1 with: The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.  It’s a hot day.  Now this is a Bible story and as such it’s set in Palestine, so it’s always a hot day.  For the Bible to indicate that it was a hot day suggests that it was a very hot day.  Not ordinary hot this day is stupidly hot.  It’s also the hottest part of this sweltering day, and Abraham is sitting in the door of his tent, trying to get respite from the hot sun in that little bit of breeze and shade.   The tent has been raised near the oak trees, so I’m suggesting there’s some shade and some water available.   Abraham is 99 years old, we know this because a year later when Isaac is born he’s 100.  This is not a question of theology, it’s maths.  I don’t have a degree in Maths but I’m pretty sure what a century minus a year looks like in numbers.  So, it’s sweltering, it’s the hottest time of the day, and Abraham is very old.  And as I have just told you, he is sitting in the shade.  And while all this ordinary stuff is happening the LORD appears.

Now, Ordinary Sundays aside: if I be chillin outside me tent on a scorcher of a day, and the LORD appears, that would probably spark my water, let me tell you.  There is nothing ordinary about God showing up in the form of three men looking for a cold one each and a bit of a sit down.  Of all the things on my list of what is ordinary, and then referring to the special category of what might be expected on an afternoon in summer, God showing up looking for a drink is not on that list.  God showing up like that is unexpected.  To say the least.  And since you’ve not employed me as your preacher to say the least I’m going to say some more.  Let’s read on.

Genesis 18:2 tells us that Abraham (99 and hot, but not in the good way) runs(!) from the shade and into the sun(!) to meet the men (who are the actual LORD).  As you do: when the LORD appears.

In Genesis 18:3-5a Abraham invites “my lord” to stay, note that he’s speaking in the singular here, and in Genesis 18:5b they (plural) agree to do so.  Now this is actually not extraordinary, you would expect Abraham and Sarah to show this depth of hospitality to strangers, and for strangers to think nothing of this extravagance, since that was the cultural norm.  Travelling strangers in the desert, no matter who they are, even enemies, are to be given food, water, shelter, and provision for the road if they pass by your camp.  Even so the sexes don’t mix so Sarah has done the baking but she stays away from the secret men’s business going on in the shade.  So, what we read in Genesis 18:6-9 is not remarkable, other than that it is the LORD who is the guest.

In Genesis 18:10 we are told that one of the men suggests that Sarah will become pregnant and give birth to a son within the next year.  Okay so that’s extraordinary, not part of the ritual of being a guest, but there you go.  The man doesn’t mention Sarah’s age, but the Bible does: and it makes no bones about it.  In Genesis 18:11 the point is made three times, just in case you didn’t get it the first time, that Sarah is each of “old”, “advanced in years”, and “that it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women”.  So, she’s old, anciently old, and the menopause was a distant memory.  So that’s pretty ordinary; I mean old women, especially very old women, tend not to be fertile.  Thank you Captain Obvious whomever wrote Genesis 18:11 for making that clear, and in such a poetic manner!   So you can see why Sarah has a chuckle about it, very much derisory in tone as well.  “What are my chances, at my age, of getting lucky with that fossil I am married to?’ she asks in Genesis 18:12.  She may have no ova left, but she’s a feisty one is our Sarah.  Anyway, the LORD asks Abraham in Genesis 18:13-14 why Sarah laughed, again observing the code of dignity by which a male stranger doesn’t speak to a female, (so the LORD doesn’t actually ask Sarah), and declares that the LORD can do as the LORD desires.  In Genesis 18:15 Sarah says I did not laugh and the LORD, in full pantomime fashion and in breaking character for a second says to her oh yes you did! And then the story ends.

What an extraordinary story for an Ordinary Sunday!

And this of course has been my point all along.  There is no such thing as an ordinary Sunday.  Yes, there are days on our calendar which are not unique as anniversaries, although I’m sure that with today being June 18th it’s important for millions of people in millions of ways regardless of today’s being a Sunday or the Sunday between Trinity and the UCA anniversary.  But it doesn’t have to be Pentecost for us to expect the Spirit to fall upon us, or to rise up within us.  The LORD is welcome here, now, today, on Ordinary Sunday 11.  Isn’t he?  And would today still be considered ordinary if God were really present here today?  Or if the Word of God came to one of you with a word of promise for the future?  I’m sure 91 year old NNN in our congregation today would not be the only one baffled if a baby were promised to her nine months from now, but what if God promised her a resurgence of love and energy in her spirit to complete the work she was allocated as a Christian?  What if God spoke directly to 90 year old NN with a message that he was to see a new multi-million-dollar audio-visual suite set up in a new auditorium on this site, and that not only would he see it happen but that NN himself would be the one in the crawlspace in the ceiling connecting it all up?  If God promised it, would you believe it?  Would your response be like Sarah’s and to laugh behind God’s back; or would your response be like Mary’s and to ask for details and then praise God at the wonder of your being chosen for such a momentous task?

But let’s not get carried away with such big dreams.  No seriously, I’m not about to criticise here.  Let’s consider how excitingly small the promises of God can be.   I’m gonna suggest that NNN doesn’t need a baby, but she might have been praying for perseverance and strength.  I’m not going to say she needs perseverance and strength, that’s for her to discern.  But do we have faith that God can do small miracles on a Sunday?  Do we trust for the gift of faith, “that shy hope in the heart”, that God will come through for us in whatever it is we are praying and believing for?  Or do we have the attitude that if NN doesn’t throw away his crutches right now and backflip up the aisle, all the while speaking in tongues, that we’re not interested?

So, today is an ordinary Sunday.  Every Sunday is, even the ones with special names.  Because every Sunday is the Lord’s Day, not just in recognition that it is the weekly anniversary of the resurrection of the saviour (which it is) but that every day belongs to the LORD because as Genesis 1 tells us every day was made by the LORD, each day with its own purpose, even for purposeful rest.

Truly, the only extraordinary thing about any given Sunday, including this one, is that the Christians do not expect God to do the amazing.  If the LORD is amongst us then the miraculous is to be anticipated.

Every.  Single.  Day.

Amen.

Extraordinary Day (Psalm 116:1-2, 12-15)

I love you God: I love that you hear me when I try to speak with you.

Especially when I try to speak with you but my words fail me because I have been ill.

Because you listen to me and delight to hear me,

I will continue to speak to you and speak with you.

 

And I will listen, in case you want to speak to me.

 

What else can I give you?  What do I have that you don’t have?

What do I have that you could possibly need?

All that I can truly offer you is my desire to receive more from you.

All that I can truly offer you is my desire to love you more,

and for others to love you because they have seen you and known you

as I have seen and known you.

I want my worship to be overheard, not that I become famous as a worshipper

or wordsmith:

but that the content of my worship, the story of my salvation,

the litany of my thanksgiving should be heard;

and that the evidence of that which has not yet been seen by others

should be made audible to them.

 

Your care of me is so apparent to me.

Your love of me has never been more real.

It is truly shocking how intimately you know me and

the degree to which you love me.

 

I have been known by God in the Biblical sense,

and this is what you have desired for each of your daughters and sons.

 

This is an extraordinary day.

But, then every day is when you are near, Lord.

 

Amen.