Hoping against hope

Hoping against hope – For he was about one hundred years old.

In the name of …..

One hundred years old is quite some age for a career change, –  Watch out Catherine and Susan – it all started for Abraham when he reached 99 – you’ve got a little way to go yet, but don’t tell me I didn’t warn you !

Seriously, though, whatever Abraham’s real age was at the start of this story – and indeed whatever the start of this story actually is, for it is all clouded by the mists of time – the writers of the story want us to know it starts with God, and with God we are never allowed to sit down quietly in retirement with a glass of mint tea and think we’ve reached the end of the road, and secondly with God the impossible – even the really impossible –  is somehow possible.

My mother once remarked in her early sixties, that when she was a Sunday School teacher in her twenties she thought she understood everything, now she was in her sixties she knew she understood nothing.  I wonder what Sarah and Abraham felt.

The Sarah and Abraham story is the beginning of our religion.  Not of faith, of course, and not even of religion either – there were many other religions at that time. People had faith, said their prayers,  offered their sacrifices for a good harvest, a safe delivery, a healing miracle – in much the same way as we do today.  But Abraham more than Adam and Eve and even Noah is the beginning of our specific religious story, and the beginning of the religious story for Jewish people and for Muslim people as well – we are children of Abraham, and we all – Jew and Christian and Muslim – inherit the promises made to him that he would be the father of many nations.  Although we don’t all interpret those promises in the same way.

In the story it is important that Abram and Sarai change their names – for this is something new – nothing will ever be the same again.

Sarah and Abraham had already left their own town, Ur in modern day Iraq and had moved to Haran in modern day Turkey – then on to Damascaus and down the Samarian centre as far as Egypt until they returned to die in Hebron.  Eventually Ishmael and Isaac were born and each went their own ways.  Jacob and Esau continue the story, Joseph and his brothers go down to Egypt during the great famine, and eventually Moses will finally be told the name and identity of God – YahWeh – and it is Moses who will lead the people through the Sinai desert and Moses who will  hand over leadership to Joshua who will lead the people into the Promised Land.  The rest – as they say, is history.

Until St Paul came on the scene.  St Paul had a problem. As a devout and educated Jew he believed in the Covenant which God had made with the people of Israel.  He was as good as a pharisee in all matters of the law – he followed the rules which God had given through Moses, the rules he had been taught in class and at home.  But here is the problem  What about the rest of the world – what happens to all them?  Doesn’t God does care for Greeks and Romans and people from the North?  Does God have any kind of a plan for them? And what is it?  He knows the answer must be Jesus – but what’s the question?   Which is why Paul turns not to Moses the Law-giver for help, but to Abraham – the one who precedes the Torah.

Because Sarah and Abraham are in the story long before all the rules and regulations of the Torah were given by Moses.  And because Abraham and Sarah are the ancestors not just of one nation, but of many nations.    So if God had a covenant with Abraham, then God must have some sort of covenant with his descendents who are not Jewish – not a Kosher or Sabbath covenant , not even a circumcision covenant because that appears mid way in the Abraham story – but a covenant based on something else – and,of course, the answer is faith –  one which all people who have faith can share –  for it was his faith which was reckoned to him as righteousness.

So then – St Paul struggles – what is this faith?  Not believing the right things, that’s for sure. Abraham didn’t even know God’s name, never mind understand the deeper mysteries of the Holy Trinity, the resurrection or the nature of the hypostatic union. In fact he and Sarah were probably polytheists who thought that El Shaddai – the God of the Mountain – was simply the best or the strongest or the most reliable God.

Nor was having faith the same as leading a moral or good life – go and read that interesting bit in Genesis 20 when Abraham passes Sarah off as his virgin Sister so that the King – Abimelech will sleep with her and so give them both a good time.  That story is morally wrong on so many accounts.

So faith is neither a creed nor a way of life – but, so the story of Sarah and Abraham would tell us – is simply trusting God – as St Paul writes :  not wavering concerning the promise of God, being fully convinced that God is able to do what God promises – it is, even at age 99, – hoping against hope even if you burst out laughing at the improbability of it all – which is just what Sarah did.

But let us go a bit further for ourselves – we who live more and more in a world and in a worldwide Christian Church which wants us simple creeds, simple rights and wrongs – and wants us to live the right kind – or the same kind – of moral life.  What then is faith for us?

Some people might be tempted to quote Romans 10: 9   “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”   But that doesn’t really answer the question, does it – it’s just a one-liner creed, if it is a creed at all, and no-one actually believes that simply believing the one single fact of the resurrection on its own is enough – or that not believing that one single fact makes faith terminal —  there are no moral obligations about how we live our lives, about how we treat other people, about how we understand God.

So what is faith?

For Abraham and Sarah faith is that they would give birth to a child and that their children and grandchildren would grow into a such a large number of people that they would be more than the sand on the shore or the stars in the sky.  They trusted that God would do this.

Which brings me nicely to Jesus : because the birth of a child – against all the odds, hoping against hope – and the beginning of a worldwide family – and the struggle Jesus has with Peter, are both about life – about what it means to be alive.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Now I struggle with these words : They have over the ages been seen as a call to Christian martyrdom.  “Do not do what you want to do, always take the sacrificial path, take up your suffering gladly and above all do not try to save your life when they kill you.”  I am deeply troubled by this kind of passive and life-negating theology.  In a new and frightening world where Christians are being slaughtered solely because they are Christians and in a world where mass murderers all too easily seem to claim the title ‘martyr’ for their actions – I don’t really want anything to do with any kind of theology which attempts to justify either of these atrocities.  I do not believe this is what Jesus meant at all.

I think we should have no time for any kind of theology which encourages the weak, or the persecuted, or the poor or the oppressed  or slaves simply to ‘take up their cross’ and accept their oppression because their reward will be great in heaven – and even less a theology which justifies the rich, the violent, or the oppressor to do nothing and protect their status quo.

As always with Jesus what I think he is talking about is life – here and now – what it means to be alive.   “For what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit you life?” –  what will it profit you to gain the whole world – if you lose your humanity.

And so faith – for me – is hoping against all hope that God can still work miracles and that we will not lose our humanity.  That we will not destroy one another in hatred and evil and not destroy the creation we live in, – for destruction is the work of Satan – but I have faith that God, through and with us, will help us live lives worth living.   Yes, at times it looks like a hope against all hope – and surrounded by so much greed and violence it sometimes make me, like Sarah, want to laugh – or cry – with disbelief.

But the cross each one of us takes up daily as followers of Jesus is the cross of trying to live more human lives in this world and in our society – with our friends, with our neigbours and with our politicians.  And let us not pretend that this is easy.  Refusing to collude with racism, bigotry, greed, sexism, – all the so called phobias with depersonalise people and turn them into scapegoat groups  – the pages of our history have seen it all before.

We choose to be Christians in this world – to be followers of Jesus on a difficult and narrow way – which is sometimes embarassing, uncomfortable, even isolating.  Standing up and being counted because we need to speak out, standing up and being counted because we have a job to do.

We do it because we believe that this is the way – and the only way – to life for ourselves and for all people.  Resorting to violence, or living as if the poor are not our responsibility, or selfishness at the expense of others, – tempting as they might be – are never the way to life.

So, I guess, that is what Church is about.  Being resourced by one another, by the stories of our faith, by the sacraments, by prayer, by the grace of God to take up that cross of trying to live as a human beings with one another in a world which tells us – rather like St Peter tries to do with Jesus – to look after ourself first.

As a bishop once told me, Church is one of the few places where you keep your coat on – just to remind us that the whole point is that we always have to go back outside into the cold again filled with faith, hope and charity.  Faith that God will achieve what God promises, Hoping against all hope – and above all with charity – the fulfilment of the law and the prophets.

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