St Johns, Johnsonville and Holy Trinity, Ohariu
Sunday, 24 February 2013
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Luke 9:28-43
“I’ll always be your friend.” “You can count on me.” “I’ll always love you.” Like me, you’ve heard those promises before and probably spoken them as well. Also, like me, I’m guessing that you’ve experienced those promises being broken or not fulfilled. That’s part of being fallible human beings. We make such promises with every intention of keeping them, but then discover that sometimes, for whatever reason, we can’t or don’t keep them.
God says things like that to us: “You can count on me.” “I’ll always love you.” But our experience of such promises in human relationships can make it more difficult for us to trust the promises of God. We tend to put onto God our experience of human love, and in our heart, we think that God may not be any different. So we might hold back a bit, hedge our bets, and protect ourselves in case God doesn’t come up with the goods.
Something like that is happening for Abram and Sarai in the reading from Genesis. Earlier on in the story God had promised to make of Abram a great nation, to bless him and make his name great. In today’s reading that promise is repeated by God. “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” For a couple who were obscure nomads and advancing in years, this was a hard promise to believe. Abram had spent time trying to work out how this promise would be fulfilled, and he was now beginning to think the God had reneged on it. He needs reassurance. He needs to know how this will happen. You know how difficult it is to believe something, to hope for something, when all the evidence is to the contrary. Abram can’t see how God will fulfil the promise to make him a great nation. Read the passage and you’ll see a sharp exchange happening between Abram and God. Faith and trust in God isn’t always easily achieved. It can be hard-fought, as many know.
Abram points out to God that he’s childless and that a mere house servant will inherit everything. But then God reassures him again, and tells Abram that he’ll have a son who will be his heir. Taking him outside, God points out the countless stars in the sky: “Look at the sky. Count the stars. Can you do it? Count your descendants! You’re going to have a big family, Abram!” This is a crunch point for Abram. It still doesn’t make sense. He’s old and Sarah is well past menopause, but Abram chooses to trust God. The writer of this ancient story says: ‘And he believed! Believed God! God declared him “Set-Right-with-God.” Abram has struggled to believe God’s incredible promise, but somehow he comes to the point when he decides to simply trust God (which is what belief is – it’s not so much believing things about God, but a trusting relationship). I like this point a writer makes: ‘When we’re able in the midst of our doubts and agonies of spirit to cast all our cares upon God and leave them there entirely, we will have gone through something of what Abraham went through.’ Coming to trust God like that isn’t always easy. It’s something that we need to keep growing into, year after year – until the day we die. It’s a matter of learning, as Abraham and Sarah did, that God can be trusted.
Even with the reassurance from God, Abram needed more proof. The story tells of a very ancient ritual in which animals are hacked in two. This is a bit obscure, but it’s basically about God making a solemn agreement with Abram – promising to Abram a people and a land for the future. It’s as if Abram needed something to reinforce and assure him of God’s promise. It’s no different for us is it? We need ‘outward and visible signs’ of what God gives us ‘inwardly and spiritually’. The sacraments do that for us. Baptism makes us children of God and members of Christ’s family. The Eucharist assures us of Christ’s presence, that we are united with him and with all God’s people. Anointing and Reconciliation assure us of God’s healing and forgiveness. They’re signs that God is with us, that God can be trusted, that God acts. And like Abram, we need only to respond with trust.
The story of Abram is the story of a person who learns to trust God – who learns that God is trustworthy. But how does Abram learn to trust God? It was through learning to listen to God, to converse with God, to be in relationship with God. It was like that for the three disciples – with Peter, James and John – as they went up the mountain with Jesus – to do what? To pray! For Luke, prayer a big part of how we know God. Listening to God, conversing with God, being with God, is how we come to know and trust God.
Up there on the mountain something mysterious happened. Luke tries to describe it by talking about how the appearance of Jesus’ face changed and how his clothes became blinding white, and how a cloud enveloped them. I think this is Luke’s way of saying that somehow they saw and experienced God’s glory; they saw God in Jesus in a way they’d never seen before. But the story reaches its climax when Luke describes how they hear God say, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” That’s what Abram had to learn to do – to listen to God. That’s what Lent is about – taking time out to be still with God, to listen to God – to hear what God has to say to us – to hear God’s promises and to grow in our trust of God.
This doesn’t mean that we’ll hear God’s voice as you are hearing mine now. Rather, it tends, in my experience, to be a growing awareness of what God’s will and desire for us is. And this comes as we worship regularly together, read the scriptures, receive the sacraments, and spend time in prayer. And the prayer that Jesus encourages is prayer in which we are totally ourselves with God – not fancy prayer, but prayer in which we can be completely honest (like Abram was with God).
Up there on the mountain, the three disciples didn’t understand everything that was happening. In fact, they said some rather silly things. But they knew they had witnessed God’s glory – they knew they’d heard God. It can be like that for us too. We often find it bewildering to know how to understand all that God is doing and saying in our lives. Like Abram, we have a mixture of faith and doubt, and our lives are a journey of learning to trust – learning that God can be trusted. And the word that comes to us, leading us on to follow Jesus, even when we haven’t a clue what’s going on or where he’s taking us. It’s the word the disciples heard, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” May that be our pattern this Lent: listening, following and trusting God.