Sermons from Rev Julie Wagstaff
Sunday 24th July
Today’s OT reading from Genesis continues on from last week’s story. There are the three ‘men’ who visited Abraham and Sarah, leaving them with the promise that in a year’s time Sarah will have given birth to a son. We miss the exchange about Sarah laughing at the thought and her denial that she had done so.
And now the visitors are setting out again and Abraham accompanies them on their way – possibly the same sort of gesture as if we walked with a visitor down the drive to see them off.
But immediately before our reading today, in verses 17-19, God is debating about whether or not to let Abraham in on his plan - which isn’t at all about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but about his larger purposes – about how he’s going to deal with the powerful exploiting the weak, and about how he intends to make Abraham a blessing to ‘all the nations’ – which of course is the big plan to rescue all of us that reaches its fulfilment in Jesus.
Abraham is to become the father of a great and mighty nation through whom all the earth shall be blessed and he needs to understand the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice and passing this understanding on to the generations to come .... so God tells him what is going to happen to Sodom.
What follows may sound as though it is Abraham who has to remind God of what is right and wrong and to persuade a nasty vindictive God not to do something unjust by allowing the righteous to die along with the unrighteous. “See”, some will say, “that God of the Old Testament is a vengeful, hateful being.”
What is actually happening is that God is revealing more about his nature and Abraham’s understanding of who God is grows as a result. What’s going on in the conversation between Abraham and God is actually a lesson from a skilled teacher. God doesn’t tell Abraham the plan straight off, he allows him to discover it, allows Abraham to struggle and set the pace as he comes to realize how much it all matters.
By allowing Abraham to plead time and time again for the lives of those in Sodom who are righteous, God is allowing Abraham to think for himself about what justice and righteousness should look like and to take responsibility for passing on God’s ways.
What Abraham discovers is that as his own instinct for justice and mercy increases, he finds it matched & surpassed by God at every turn. And there seems to be a kind of teasing pleasure in God’s attitude as he dares Abraham to test him further and further, waiting for the penny to drop – waiting for Abraham to realize that what he’s asking for is what God already wants – and was intending all along......
In this story Abraham is talking to God ‘face to face’ as it were, so it may seem rather remote from our own experience. But, in our Gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples that through prayer they too can talk to God ‘face to face’ – just as He does, they too can have a relationship in which they are able to bring anything and everything before God.
He doesn’t begin by giving advice about how or where or when to pray, he teaches them to talk to God, bringing both the exalted and the mundane. As Jane Williams says ‘in one breath we can ask for the coming of the kingdom and our daily bread. There is nothing that we cannot take to God in prayer.
I have often heard people say that it doesn’t seem right to pray for something for themselves, and when I once suggested - during one of the very first PCC meetings I ever attended - that we pray for the means to meet our parish share – or quota as it was then called, What! came the response - I could never pray to God for money!
Fair enough – but if we are to come before God openly and honestly, both as individuals and as a family, then we must place everything before him ... our thanksgiving, things that we are sorry for, our concerns for our own needs as well as those of others .... it’s pointless really trying to hide anything because he knows anyway .... but he want us to turn to him, to trust him enough to tell him. Just as we do with our children – we know something is bothering them, we probably have a good idea of what it is, but we want them to trust us enough to tell us.
Now it’s one thing being open and honest with somebody who you suspect may use the information to trip you up ... or hold it over you to make you behave in future and there are two lies which the world often tells about God’s intention for human behaviour.
First, people say that God doesn’t want us to have a good time; second, they say that even if we try to live as he wants all we’ll ever get is a grudging approval. People often imagine that God is eager to spot the slightest wrongdoing and punish us for it.
But, God is a just and righteous God, who, through Jesus, has born the price of all our wrongdoing. A God who loves us unconditionally, we are precious to him. He’s not waiting to trip us up or threatening us that if we don’t behave in future he’ll have no more to do with us. We can trust him totally.
He simply wants us to understand that, to believe it, to keep talking to him, to deepen our understanding of his nature and let go of any of the misconceptions we may have grown up with that keep us from enjoying the freedom of our salvation through Jesus Christ.
As Paul tells the Colossians ‘God made you alive together with him – Jesus - when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands’. The Cross is the central feature of what God has accomplished for all of us, for the whole world.
I had often wondered just why Jesus was crucified under the sign that said he was ‘King of the Jews’. I had thought it was Pilate’s way of saying to the Jews that he still believed Jesus to be innocent and undeserving of death.
But, according to our friend Tom – Tom Wright, learned theologian - it was linked with the custom of victorious Roman armies when generals would bring back to Rome the ‘spoils of war’ – the booty they had captured, the prisoners they had taken and, if possible the king of the nation they had defeated and execute him in front of the crowds – an extravaganza known as a triumph.
Although Jesus hadn’t been leading an army or serious military revolt and wasn’t worth taking back to Rome - every execution of a rebel ‘king’ even a strange one like Jesus, was another symbolic triumph for Rome, and hence, in Jewish eyes, for the power of paganism as a whole.
So when, in verse 15 Paul says ‘He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it’, Paul is declaring, that on the cross it was God who was celebrating his triumph over the principalities and powers, the very powers that thought it was the other way round.
This is the glorious paradox of the cross: God’s weakness overcoming human strength, God’s folly overcoming human wisdom.
So, as Paul says in Romans 8 ‘There is therefore no condemnation for those who belong to King Jesus’. We have been forgiven all our sins and offences. There is only one voice we need listen to.
With the opening word of the prayer, Jesus taught his disciples how to approach God. When you pray, say Father.
The disciples no doubt had watched and heard Jesus praying many times, and there’s something about his relationship with God that attracts them and makes them want to learn. Jesus simply teaches them and us to talk to God: to bring the whole muddle of our lives to him.
But we have to work at it, remember it, live it. Let it be the voice that shapes us. Let it be the voice that we attend to first and foremost.
Just like in any relationship - we have to spend time with someone to get to know them. It’s in talking to God and listening to what he says, that we get to understand what he’s about.
Abraham gets to learn that God is indeed a just judge – and not just as a philosophical idea or concept, but in his own experience – and it changes him.
Jesus tells a funny story about an irritating friend to get the disciples to see that prayer is something basic - like breathing – part of our day-to-day life. In the words of Jane Williams:
Praying is not something carefully sanitized, so that we bring to God only what we know he will like. Jesus is encouraging his disciples to bombard God, to tell him everything, to talk to him constantly, to involve him in every part of their lives…And as you pester, as Abraham did, as the persistent friend did to the sleepy householder, you will learn more about God, and about yourself in relation to him…
You might say the message from all today’s readings is ‘Go direct to God and accept no substitutes.’ It’s so easy to substitute something else for God, often for the very best of motives. We don’t like to show God our incomprehension, or our humour, and so we gladly bring less and less of our real selves to prayer.”
It’s easy to become distant in any relationship; to get stuck with certain stylized responses to another person like you’re disconnected somehow – and it’s the same if our prayers are always formulaic because it probably means we’re knowing less and less about God and how to recognize him.
Notice that Abraham had the courage to go straight to God and question him, and – yes - Jesus encourages us to do the same. God’s big enough to handle our questions – and we are then enabled to live with the questions, alongside our faith, because they have been placed openly before God with the doubts and fears that go with them.
As I have said before, becoming a Christian is one thing, but it takes a lifetime to work out what it means to live out our faith.
In Colossians Paul is reminding the Christians to go direct to Christ, and not let anything else, however good it may seem, get in the way.
Our focus should not just be on ‘gathering’, but as our diocesan prayer reminds us each week, on growing into the likeness Jesus so that we can go out to share the good news. Amen