Sermon: Second Sunday of Lent

Sermon for 1st March 2015
St Paul’s Woldingham, Evensong
Second Sunday of Lent
Psalm 135:1-14
Genesis 12:1-9
Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of
things not seen.”

All three of tonight’s readings are about faith, in one way or another.

The Psalm starts, telling us to praise God — not only because God has
power over wind and rain, oceans and clouds; but because God was true
to his promise to Abraham, brought his people out of slavery in Egypt
and into the land he had promised to them. The Psalmist is clearly
impressed, remembering that heritage and rejoicing that God is
faithful.

The reading from Genesis this evening, however, is not about God’s
faithfulness, but Abraham’s. This is really the beginning of the story
of Abraham, that great father of the Jewish people. Abraham is called
by God, and it isn’t an easy vocation. He is to leave his country. He
is to leave his kindred, to leave his father’s house, and go to some
other land — a land he hasn’t seen, and knows nothing about. God
promises to show him this land, and to make of him “a great nation”.

That’s a pretty big promise, but what has Abram got to go on here?
There doesn’t seem to be much. He’s moved before, when his father
Terah went from Ur to Haran, but they’ve settled there. Terah has
died, and so has one of Abram’s brothers, Lot’s father. He hasn’t yet
had his sons, Ishmael and Isaac; he hasn’t been re-named Abraham yet.
He hasn’t really seen what God has to offer. He has no proof that God
is telling the truth about this promised land, or about being made
into a great nation.

But Abram doesn’t ask God what God is up to, or complain, or delay –
or if he does, we don’t get to read about it. In the reading it just
says “So Abram went.” Just like that. He was seventy-five years old:
think of it, going on an adventure like that and having no idea where
you’re going to end up! But that is exactly what Abram does, and he
doesn’t just take a tent and some provisions either, but his entire
household.

The epistles to the Hebrews is written to Jewish Christians living in
Jerusalem. These would be people who knew the story of Abraham well,
so it isn’t surprising that the letter-writer makes extensive
reference to it.

Modern scholarship dates the text as some of the earliest in the New
Testament, before the destruction of the second Temple. That wasn’t an
easy time to be a Christian of Jewish heritage. Christianity at this
time was still very much a fringe movement, without a settled identity
or ancient institutions. Many Christians at the time wouldn’t have
been original disciples or followers of Jesus. They didn’t get to
travel with him and see for themselves the great works he did; they
didn’t weep at the foot of the cross or rejoice at the resurrection or
meet him on the road to Emmaus. Just before the part of the letter we
read today there is an encouragement to persevere in faith, so it may
be that the Jewish-Christian community at Jerusalem was getting
discouraged and apathetic.

The letter to the Hebrews was also part of a wider conversation about
what it meant to be Christian: was it necessary for non-Jews to
convert to Judaism and, for the men, to be circumcised in order to be
Christian, since God’s promises were to Abraham? Alternately, did Jews
who became Christian need to renounce their Jewish identity and their
faith in the promises God gave to Abraham? Or were the two compatible?

This evening’s passage doesn’t give us a neat “yes or no” answer to
the question of Christian identity. Rather, it defines faith — as
“the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not
seen.” The writer refers to the faith of the recipients of the letter,
in God as the creator of all things; and goes on to extol the example
of Abraham as one of deep faith.

The letter then assures the audience that God has a place in the world
to come for the Jewish people — the descendents of Abraham, those who
died in faith without having received all that God promised to them.
Maybe that answers a bit of the identity question: converting to
Christianity does not mean rejecting the covenant with Abraham or the
relationship that all those generations of people had with God.
Instead, their faith and hope for a better world will be rewarded, we
are promised. God is faithful, God is trustworthy, and faith is the
belief that what we have been promised will come true.

What does all this mean for us today?

As Christians, we have a vocation — to follow Christ — and we have
been promised much: salvation through Christ. It may be that our
vocation, like Abram’s, involves a change in our geography, literally
moving from one place to another; or our journey may be one where we
stay in one place but journey in faith. Either way, like Abraham, we
may not know where we are going until we get there. We will probably
be asked to leave behind things that are familiar and well-known. We
may be called to give up things in our lives that are comfortable, or
to take risks. This journey in stages, this acting out of our faith in
God’s promises to us, may be daunting and difficult. But it is a
journey that is worthwhile: the God who calls us is faithful.

Heavenly Father, guide us in all our journeys, so that our final
destination may be the salvation you have promised us, through Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.

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