Friday, February 23, 2018

Promise and Risk: Reflections on Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16 (RCL Lent 2B, 25 February 2018)

Promise and Risk
Reflections on Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16

RCL Lent 2B
25 February 2018

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

            17.1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.  2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”  3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you:  You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.  7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

            15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.  16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her.  I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

         It is a rare promise that does not involve some risk.  Let’s imagine ourselves within the story of Noah and the flood.  The waters have receded and the dry land has re-appeared.  The animals are re-populating the earth and plants have begun to spring forth from the earth.  Noah and his family are re-establishing some semblance of normal life.  Shelters have been built and the tasks of everyday life occupy the people.

         Then there is the sound of thunder in the distance.  Clouds fill the sky and creatures seek shelter from the approaching storm.  Noah and his family know the promise that God has made, but it would only be natural for them to experience a moment of doubt, a moment of uncertainty.  As the rain begins to fall and the family takes shelter, I can see the exchange of glances.  Has God forgotten the promise?  Has something happened to change God’s mind?  Will there be another flood?

         The storm passes and the rainbow appears in the sky.  Another day dawns and life does seem to be returning to the patterns familiar to one and to all.  God has kept the promise.  It may have taken a few months, even a few years, before the memory of the flood was not stirred up by the sound of thunder and the coming of the rain.

         Then, centuries later, Abraham and Sarah leave the comfort of Haran on account of a word spoken by God, the promise of a future beyond the hopes of any human being.  And so they travel and experience moments of promise and moments of dread.  They grow old with no legitimate child to make good on the promise of God that they would be the ancestors of a people too numerous to count.  They’ve done all that God asked them to do, but the promise has not yet been fulfilled.

         Well into their old age, Abraham and Sarah wait.  Finally a word from God comes again and the promise is renewed.  Do they take the risk to believe in the promise or choose to be satisfied with the material wealth they have accumulated, with the knowledge that Abraham’s nephew has children?  After all, Abraham does have an acknowledged son, Ishmael.  Perhaps this was what God meant.  Divine messages can be difficult to decipher.     

         But the risk of faith pays off.  Sarah does give birth to a son, Isaac.  The next generation, at least, is assured.  In the years ahead Abraham and Sarah will see the concrete fulfilment of the promise made so long ago.

         It is, as I said, the rare promise that does not carry a certain risk.  Whether the risk is endurable or not depends upon how important we believe the fulfilment of the promise to be.  If I promise Paula to bring home the ingredients for a particular dinner dish and I forget, then the risk I face is Paula’s disappointment and a less than pleasing dinner, depending upon what we have available at home.  But if I promise another human being to be faithful for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, for as long as I live, then the risk of not fulfilling that promise is certainly more costly than forgetting the ingredients for supper.

         Whether it is the covenant God made with humanity and sealed with the rainbow or the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah and sealed with the birth of Isaac or the covenant God has made with you and me and sealed in the waters of baptism, there is always some risk in believing in the promises of God.  These risks arise because God’s promises are never ones for which we are supposed to sit around and wait for their fulfilment.  God’s promises require those to whom the promise is made to act as if the promise has already been fulfilled in its completeness.

         In the covenant with Noah we are promised that ‘all God’s critters got a place in the choir’, that every creature, human and non-human, is so precious in God’s sight that God cannot envision bringing its life to an unnatural end.  Yet we know all too well how many of God’s creatures suffer as a consequence of human sin.  For some people this is reason to disbelieve the promise of God; for others, such as you and I, it is a reason to renew our efforts and work for a world in which all God’s children can be free.

         In the covenant with Abraham and Sarah we are promised that God calls ordinary people to achieve God’s purposes.  By entering into covenant with Abraham and Sarah, God does not set aside the earlier covenant with Noah.  God seals that covenant with something more grounded than the rainbow:  a people whose very existence is a sign of God acting in history.  The descendants, whether in the flesh or not, of Abraham and Sarah witness to God’s faithfulness through their own faithfulness to the covenant that God has made with them.  This sign is distorted when it is used to glorify one part of God’s family to the exclusion of any other part, but that is the risk of being chosen.  We sometimes forget what we are chosen for.

         In the covenant of baptism we are promised that God will transform us more and more into the likeness of Christ.  There is risk here, for transformation requires change and every change, even a positive one, means a loss and every loss brings some grief.  But if we are committed to seeing Christ more clearly, to loving Christ more dearly, to following Christ more nearly, then the risk of discipleship is more than bearable; it is greeted as a sign of growth.

         Even when we hear the rumble of distant thunder, we know that God has promised to sustain ‘this fragile earth, our island home’ and we continue the ministry entrusted to us.  Even when we realize that we are being called from the comfort of familiar patterns of how to be church, we know that God has promised to bring new life into being and the promise of a future.

         When I look at the risk of being a Christian today, I find myself returning to an ancient Christian text, the Exsultet, the Easter proclamation sung at the lighting of the Paschal candle.  In some ancient versions the deacon sings, ‘O blessed iniquity!  That such a sin should merit such a Saviour!’  It is a reminder that when God created us and gave us free will, God took the risk that we would fail.  But in Christ God takes another risk, the risk that we will return to our right minds.  When a God such as this takes such risks for us, who are we not to respond and take the risk of faith?

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