s099e00 Somerton Park Lent 2 19/3/2000

Abraham "did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old) ... No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith "was reckoned to him as righteousness."" Romans 4:19-22.

I suppose there are some passages of scripture that I have to read and comment on, when I would rather choose some passages more joyful, some passages less theological ... Today is such a Sunday. How do I get some good news out of this lot?

For I confess some discomfort at the idealised words of St Paul about Abraham. My frustration is compounded by the fact that we miss out on reading Abraham's response to the wonderful promises made to him by God in the Old Testament reading. If we do, and we read the very next verse, verse 17 of the 17th chapter of Genesis, we find the words: "Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, "Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?"" (Genesis 17:17). I get the impression of someone "rolling in the aisles" in mirth. These are hardly the actions of someone who is growing "strong in the faith", someone giving "glory to God". I should not have thought that falling on one's face and laughing was particularly conducive to being reckoned as being righteous.

But it goes further than this, for Abraham immediately decides that he must help God perform this miracle. Firstly he effectively suggests that the maternity of the child doesn't really matter to him. He mentions Ishmael, his son by Hagar, his Egyptian servant. Abraham believes God must have got it wrong when God mentions Sarah - but no God hadn't. To me this is not the action of someone: "fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised".

But next Abraham wants to "help" God by suggesting that the promised child's paternity doesn't really matter to him either. We are told that while he was dwelling in Gerah, Abraham neglects to tell the king of Gerah that Sarah is actually his wife - a particularly strange thing to do when God had only just promised him a son through Sarah. The king immediately proceeds to take her as his wife, but is prevented by God from consummating the union. As I say, perhaps Abraham thought that he was helping God fulfil his promise. Again they are hardly the actions of someone who was "fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised."

For the words go to much length to make it quite plain that Isaac is actually Abraham's child (Gen 20) and that God's promise was fulfilled exactly as God said and without the compromises and "help" Abraham offers.

So I personally don't see Abraham as a person who had faith in any larger quantity than you or I. For all God appeared to Abraham, there is much evidence to suggest that Abraham grew in faith like everyone of us. So I guess I relate to Abraham the person as the author of Genesis describes him, rather than the idealised model that St Paul gives us.

St Paul wants us to trust God, to be fully convinced that God "is able to do what he has promised". And trusting God is a good thing to do. God is indeed able to do what God promises. God is able to do what God promises, God is not bound by our belief or unbelief - which is a very good thing.

May I repeat - God is able to work despite our unbelief. We do not enable God to work in our lives as we believe. And God does not need our help to perform the miracles that surround us.

God acts, and does things we don't expect, things we don't ask for, even things we believe quite beyond the realms of possibility - despite our unbelief, and without our assistance - just as God did this thing for Abraham - something he didn't expect, something he didn't ask for, something he considered quite beyond the realms of possibility.

Of course this leads us firstly to look as see the miracles around us. One of the constant things I see is a goodly amount of heroism, where one person has the 24 hour care of another. And I see in young people a desire to make their mark and a will to survive, often when faced with what must seem like insurmountable obstacles.

Secondly it leads us to share with others our insights of those miracles and especially the miracle that God does these things despite our unbelief and without our assistance. If the only difference for Christians is that we see God at work in such a wide arena, all we need do is point out to others what is obvious. Of course, when we point out God at work in them (rather than us), despite their perhaps unbelief, this will no doubt make no small impression.

However it needs to be said that the Church's perceptions are frequently as clouded as the "world's".

I was reflecting recently, some of the music that stirred my soul in my teenage years was found in a book called "Travelling to Freedom" by (Fr) Tony Newman & Peter Stone (A Living Parish Publication 1971). Perhaps I am just showing my age, but I lament that even after nearly 30 years - songs like Paul Simon's "Sounds of Silence", John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "Let It Be", Bob Dylan's "The Times They are a Changin'", and Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" are still not found in hymn books or sung in worship. Even the new Australian Hymn Book "Together in Song" published last year, and which I would agree with the ABC FM comment that it is the most comprehensive collection of hymns in the Southern Hemisphere, still focusses on "real" hymns or choruses. The Church failed to capture the vitality of a whole era, and we are the worse for that. And what about "Bridge over Troubled Waters" and, dare I say it, "Imagine"?

I started by saying that these readings are not my favourite, and yet as I look at them closely I see some good news. As I sit in front of my computer, the words seem to come. I find it astonishing that there always seems some fresh insight, even after all these years. Indeed recently I have found further insights in very familiar passages, even after I have just preached on them. I begin to wonder if I'll remember them when next I come to use those texts ...

There is, of course an alternative - and that is that what I think St Paul means by righteousness is rather different that what I have assumed. If God can look at Abraham and see someone who is "righteous", then perhaps God sees people rather different from what you or I see them - and how you and I see ourselves.

And so I was lead to go back to my text-books of long ago. N. H. Snaith, in an article on "righteousness" ("A Theological Word Book of the Bible" ed Alan Richardson SCM 1972 p202) quickly covers the connotation of righteousness which I have assumed covered the whole meaning of the word - upright actions - what we most closely associate with "self righteous" people. Snaith shows however that the word is mostly associated with Gods' preferential treatment of the poor, "the stranger that is within thy gates" (Deut 5.14). Rather than righteousness = justice = strict equality, he suggests righteousness is more akin to "clemency", "compassion", "generosity and benevolence to the helpless" and "pity". This leads on the the final New Testament meaning - the "ethical conduct ... of the Christian ..." which bids us do likewise.

So turning back to Abraham, we find this squares exactly with his character as he is described by the author of Genesis. Abraham separates from his nephew Lot, so that there would not be friction between the two families. He gives Lot the first choice of the land before them (Gen 13). Later he rescues Lot from the king of Sodom, but refuses the king of Sodom's extravagant terms of peace, only asking for some small costs to be reimbursed (Gen 14). We get a picture of a person who loves peace and puts others before himself. It is interesting to me that all this happens prior to the covenant God made with Abraham (Gen 15).

Even more telling is precisely that incident where Abraham pleads that the inhabitants of Sodom may be spared lest some innocent parties are hurt. This particularly marks Abraham's righteousness. (Gen 18). He considers others, those not of his own kith and kin, those not of his own faith, even those who have wronged him and his family.

I suppose when one comes to think about it, the whole point of the calling of Abram to leave his father's house and travel to the promised land, was not that there was not land available "back home" for Abram to occupy and settle in, it was not an exercise of territorial engrandisement for the culture of Abram's father, Terah - a prehistoric colonialism. No, it was about being sent to bless others where "they are at".

This is the essence of righteousness, that we too are not bidden to be morally perfect, we are not bidden to try to change the world to get everyone to become like us - we are sent merely to be a blessing to others "where they are at", not just when they come to think or become like us.

 

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