Hagar and Ishmael – Genesis 21:8-21

Would you be flattered if you were described as a small cog in a very big machine? I’m not sure I would! I suppose whoever came up with that phrase may have been trying to get to the idea that each of us has a place, and a role to do. That our part may seem minor, but we are contributing to something much greater than ourselves. Economics and society may well feel like that, but what about God’s plan? Where do you and I fit into God’s great big picture? Are we dots of colour on the painting? Cogs in the machine? Grain that is ground to make bread

I think a better image is one that will resonate with anyone who’s been to an Open Gardens recently. Think of a flower bed, a riot of colour. There are groups of plantings, blocks of blues purples and reds following the gardener’s plan. The overall effect is of great beauty, natural and at the same time ordered. Yet all this is possible because each individual geranium or rose is following its destiny, being fulfilled in flowering. It’s that fulfilment which is key – God’s plan does not involve treating us as impersonal cogs. God’s plan for creation is fulfilled as we find our true place, destiny and calling

God weaves a tapestry out of history and when he does so he makes it up from the individual threads of our lives. He includes our triumphs and disasters, our obedience and even our failures. As we hear in our Old Testament reading, God is able to work with even the most unpromising situations. He can turn around injustice, he can bring about his purposes while also bringing healing and fulfilment to individual persons

You might like to have the reading from Genesis 21 verses 8-21 in front of you. To understand what’s going on, we need to recap from earlier on in the story, where God had called Abraham to go to Canaan and promised that he would be the father of many nations. Yet Abraham and his wife Sarah were old. So after several years, Sarah suggested that Abraham should have a child with her slave-girl Hagar. Sarah gave Hagar into Abraham’s arms, Hagar conceived and gave birth to Ishmael

As Christians in the 21st century, what on earth do we do with this? It’s the stuff of dystopian science fiction. Yes, it may have been the custom back then, yes it may have been an accepted way of producing an heir; but how do we understand it now, make sense of it? To us it’s outrageous. Slavery is an abuse of power, let alone making the slave girl have your child.

It’s really important to understand that when the Bible stories describe something, they often do so as a warning, not as an example to follow. The people in the Bible are not plaster-cast saints; perfect individuals whom we must admire from a distance. They are all too human, flawed, dangerously so. They wrestle with God and their own frailties. Sin catches them out, but somehow God works through this gritty reality. The stories tell us about real people, real passions, real redemption

Old Testament narrative in particular tends to tell us what happened and invite us to draw our own conclusions. Sometimes there will be a clear moral, more often we have to work out for ourselves: was this action wise? Did it obey God and lead to human flourishing

And the obvious answer is no. Hagar was unhappy. Sarah was jealous. Abraham was caught in the middle. God had not been obeyed. Abraham and Sarah had taken matters into their own hands, used a flawed and unjust human solution to try and fulfil God’s promise. The story is about to get worse, and yet amazingly, God can redeem it

Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, God repeats his promise to Abraham. This time Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac. By the time our reading starts in v.8 Isaac is about three years old – they weaned late back then, and the feast celebrates the fact Isaac has passed through the period of greatest infant mortality. Yet in verse 9, Sarah sees Ishmael playing – or the word might mean making fun – of Isaac.

How incredibly destructive jealousy is! Jealousy is one of the most powerful and irrational emotions. Jealousy fritters away inheritance on legal fees, it wastes court time on disputes over the names on gravestones, it leads one man to oppose his neighbour’s planning permission because the neighbour’s house is nicer. Jealousy fuels social media trolling, it causes anxiety and leads people to cut off their nose to spite their face. Jealousy reorients our lives to priorities which do not bring peace and can never satisfy. It is a form of madness.

If we do find jealousy in our hearts – perhaps at the career success of colleagues or the wealth of friends – then we need to repent of it. But we also need to sow a better plant to replace the weed. The Christian antidotes to jealousy are contentedness and generosity. If we are content with our lot, then the good things others enjoy will not trouble us. If we give thanks regularly for our blessings, then we will not feel that we are missing out. And if we are generous in our attitudes and actions, we will not feel diminished when others do well.

Abraham and Sarah were wealthy. Isaac’s needs would have been amply met if they had shared with Ishmael. But Sarah insists that Ishmael will not inherit. Conveniently forgetting her own role in creating this situation, she demands in v.10: ‘The son of the slave girl shall not inherit with my son Isaac.

Now some experts say this is not as harsh as it appears. Apparently there were laws at the time which allow the child born to a slave and her master to inherit. But the slave and the child can be liberated in exchange for relinquishing the inheritance. So in effect, Hagar is freed

But it still seems harsh to me. What sort of freedom is this? Freedom to wander unsupported? Freedom to be friendless and alone in the wilderness? Who wants that freedom? Abraham did not want it for Ishmael – he is greatly distressed. We can only imagine the marital situation that resulted.

The unstoppable force of Sarah meets the immoveable object of Abraham in such a way that only God can resolve it with a direct command to Abraham. Do what your wife says, but it will work out because God has a plan. It is indeed Isaac who is the son of the promise, his descendants will give rise to the Jewish nation. But choosing Isaac does not mean that Ishmael is rejected. He too will become a great nation

This is really important. There’s a lot in the Bible about how God chose Israel, how he has a chosen people. Sometimes this was interpreted as God choosing a particular people to the exclusion of others. But St Paul reminds us that God’s plan was always that Israel would be a light to the nations, a special blessing to the Gentiles, showing them how to live and know God.

God’s call is always like this – to be a means of blessing. God doesn’t call anyone to be special or to feel great – he calls us to serve. We who come to church on Sunday – we shouldn’t think of ourselves as the chosen few, but as a means of blessing to our communities

Sometimes that may seem optimistic. In the final few verses Ishmael’s very survival seems in doubt, let alone any idea of becoming a great nation. Hagar is lost, dehydrated, it’s a pathetic scene as mother and son both weep and prepare to die.

But just at the point when all is lost, God saves. The loving and rescuing heart of God cares just as much for the cast-out slave as for the patriarch. In verses 17 and 18 God affirms that he has heard Ishmael’s prayer. He knows every person’s situation and he hears us when we pray to him. God reiterates his promise that Ishmael will be a great nation – which should remind us that God’s promises can be trusted. God commands action ‘Get up’ – and we should remember that God’s blessings often need a response from us. God opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a well – which may remind us that sometimes the answer to pray lies in what is already close at hand.

The story ends with God continuing to be with Ishmael. The young man carves out a life for himself as a desert ranger, and his mother finds him a wife from her home in Egypt. Finally, as a postscript in Genesis 25:9, we find that when Abraham dies, he is buried by his sons Isaac and Ishmael. At the death of the parent the divided family come together

To sum up then, in these events we have a warning. A warning about the terrible consequences of jealousy and exploitation. Abraham and Sarah are not here as examples to be emulated, but avoided. Yet as well as a warning, we also have a promise and an encouragement. We see that God can redeem even the most desperate situation. That God has an incredible ability to turn things around and use even the most flawed people in his plan. Here we see grace, compassion for the needy, redemption and hope. Amen.

 

A New Year Covenant

I wonder how those New Year resolutions are going? Three hours since we woke and still going strong! Someone once said that a resolution goes in one year and out the other. My favourite is the chap who said: ‘May your troubles last as long as your New Year’s Resolutions.’

Why do they have that reputation for fading quickly? Perhaps it’s because of what they are. A resolution could be defined as a promise to make a dramatic, sudden and major change in one’s life, usually for one’s own benefit, and attempting to do so by one’s own will power and strength. Often once the resolution is broken, we throw in the towel and go back to having a drink every day, or whatever it may be.

There is a Biblical alternative. A model which has very deep roots in the Christian tradition and Judaism before it. Something we’ll be doing later in the service. It speaks, not of a one-off change, but of being continually transformed by grace. It calls us, not to a brittle promise, but a lifelong journey with God, where when we fail we are picked up again, forgiven and filled with the Holy Spirit.

This Biblical alternative is the Covenant. A committed relationship, a promise of faithfulness between God and his people. It’s almost like an agreement: there are duties set out, blessings for obedience and consequences for failure. But it’s not a legalistic thing like a property covenant – a Biblical covenant is always held in God’s grace and love, and though people broke them many times, God never broke faith.

Why today? We’re thinking about Covenants this Sunday because the 1st January is the eighth day of Christmas, and as it says in our reading from Luke 2:21 ‘On the eighth day it was time to circumcise the child and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived.’ Jewish people circumcise male children because it is commanded as one of the Old Testament covenants. Circumcision for Jews is a sign of belonging to God’s people.

The background is that when God promised Abraham he would become a great nation, God also commanded that all Abraham’s descendants should be circumcised as a reminder of this promise. There were other covenants God made with his people – for instance the giving of the Ten Commandments after the Exodus was also part of a covenant.

There’s a pattern we can see. The initiative is always God’s. God called Abraham. God rescued the people of Israel from Egypt. It wasn’t the people who approached God, rather he moved in grace and love towards his people. Then, as they respond to his call, God instructs them in the right way to live. He shows them how to thrive. These commands are for their good, so if they keep them they will experience blessings showered upon them. But if they turn away from the right path, it’s like putting up an umbrella against the shower of blessings. In other words, sin stops us enjoying the life God has called us to.

The idea of the covenant is that God and his people are bound together forever. Think of a marriage – which is often described as a covenant, the relationship is meant to endure through thick and thin. For richer and poorer, for better and for worse, God will be faithful to his people. When they sin they experience his faithfulness as judgement, discipline which brings them back. When they repent, God’s faithfulness means they are forgiven. It’s not two-faced but two sides of the same coin.

Let’s get one thing clear. A covenant isn’t about winning God’s favour. Sometimes people think that a covenant is all about doing good and avoiding evil so we can get into heaven. That is not Christianity. That would be like one of those comedies where someone is trying to catch a train – their legs go faster and faster but still the carriages draw away from them.

True Christianity teaches grace: it’s more like Jesus is the train driver who stops for us so we can get on. And a covenant is a bit like not doing anything stupid while you’re on the train: don’t get off before the destination; don’t stick your head out of the window when a tunnel is coming up. Covenants keep us abiding in the grace of God. His love brings us in and the covenant stops us messing up.

Christians don’t see a covenant as an attempt to earn salvation, because Jesus has already done it for us. That is what St. Paul is saying in our reading from Galatians chapter 4. In verse 4: ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law’ – this refers to the circumcision we thought about earlier. Jesus lived in the covenant, he kept the Jewish law fully, the only person ever to keep it both in letter and in spirit.

In verse 5: ‘In order to redeem those who were under the law so that we might receive adoption as children’. Redeem means buying back, giving a payment in order to rescue someone. The payment that Jesus makes is his own life. He offers himself as the perfect substitute in our place, a sacrifice which brings forgiveness and wipes away the wrong we have done. Only a sinless person who did not have to account for his own sin could stand in our place and take our sin upon himself.

The result is in verse 6 ‘Because you are his children, God has sent his Spirit into your hearts, crying Abba Father.’ So we are no longer slaves but children, and if children then also heirs through God. In other words, because Jesus was perfectly good, we can be forgiven in him, and we can have perfect confidence coming to God through Jesus.

That is the covenant God makes with us now. To gives us peace, forgiveness and new life through Christ. It is God’s initiative, his covenant. That’s why Christianity is not a religion of outward observance. Christians don’t need to keep Old Testament law – but we also don’t have to do the external things which are so important in other religions.

Sikhs have their turbans and Kirpan daggers, but Christians do not have to wear a cross. Muslims pray 5 times a day and fast during Ramadan. But Christians can pray anytime, wherever they are; Christians can fast during Lent – if it’s helpful, or any other time, but we don’t have to.

Rules do not define Christians, because the heart of our faith is a relationship with God through Christ. Jesus fulfils God’s perfect requirements for us; we then live out our faith, not in ritual observances, but in love and in service for God and one another.

For Christians that covenant begins in baptism. It is continued in confirmation. But it can also be helpful to renew those promises from time to time – and what better occasion than the New Year?

As we look to the future and think about how we would like to act in 2017, our New Year service invites us to affirm our covenant with God.

There are some wonderful words of commitment and openness which we’ll be hearing in a moment. Let me just quote some:

Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult;

some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both… We’re invited to trust in God’s use of us, to be at his disposal.

and later on we say together:

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,

It’s a radical openness to God. Whatever may come our way, God will be faithful. He sees a bigger picture that we cannot; he knows what is best for us, what will grow us and how we can benefit others. God walks with us on the journey, leading and teaching us through the hardships. He will not allow us to be tested beyond what we can bear.

We can trust in God utterly because he is faithful. He has made a covenant with us, the covenant we remember at the Eucharist, the blood of the new covenant. God has given us a promise which is unshakeable because it is grounded in his consistent character, his covenanted love.

I’ll end with a poem which is well known, deservedly so. It was quoted by King George 6th in his 1939 Christmas broadcast – if we think we live in uncertain times, how much more so back then!

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

Jeremiah 8 verse 18 to 9 verse 1

‘Escape by the skin of your teeth’, ‘A drop in the bucket’, ‘Scapegoat’, ‘Casting your pearls before swine’, ‘to everything there is a season’ – everyone got the connection by now? These are all phrases that entered the English language through the Bible. The first translations of the Bible into English coined some memorable phrases which have had a lasting legacy. In fact, some university degree courses in English literature offer an introductory lecture on the Bible, so that students reading Shakespeare and Milton can get the references.

Although sometimes the earliest translations lacked a certain resonance. For instance in verse 22 of our reading from Jeremiah, Henry VIII’s Bible had ‘Is there no treacle in Gilead?’ – creating an image of the prophet bemoaning the lack of a crucial ingredient for his gingerbread.

Of course, Jeremiah is mourning something far more significant. ‘My joy is gone, grief is upon me, hark the cry of my poor people.’ It’s about 590 BC. A great army is poised on the borders of Judah. The Babylonians are soon to invade. There is a sense of looming disaster: everyone can see what is about to happen yet no-one can do anything to stop it. And they cry aloud: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion?

As can happen in times of hardship, they feel abandoned by God. God doesn’t seem to be doing anything to retrieve the situation and rescue them. It can be a very difficult thing to bear when we are going through a troubled time. Christians may say that when life is tough we are very aware of God’s presence and strength – that is often true. Occasionally though it feels as if God has abandoned us – and that is very hard – perhaps the hardest part. We have to persevere, carry on doing right seek God in the darkness until that sense of separation passes.

That can happen to the most faithful of Christians. So if anyone feels that God is a long way away it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s our fault. Sometimes though, if God feels distant it may be because we’ve moved, because we’re building walls against him and need to repent.

Just as thirst tells you that you need a drink, so the feeling of separation and distance can be God calling us back to himself. So that we can love him more, he may allow us to experience the results of when we turn away from him. How do we know? Our conscience will usually make it abundantly clear if we have been at fault, if we ask God to show us.

That was the truth for Israel. God spoke through Jeremiah words which were strange, challenging yet ultimately much more hopeful. God’s message through Jeremiah is that he has not abandoned them. Far from it, in fact he is acting in judgement.

As it says in verse 19: ‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?’ Judah had stopped serving God and instead were praying to statues to save them. God warned and rescued them time and again, eventually allowing them to experience the consequences – he permitted them to find out that statues could not save. We see God respects our free will, and they got what they chose.

For us idols are more often disordered loves. Something which is good become too important and takes over the centre of our lives. It might be money, as we heard in the Gospel parable. It might be relationships, power, work – even the best things can become idols if we try and build our lives upon them. And when we do we become dissatisfied because only God can meet that deepest need. Placed in the space that belongs to God alone such things collapse under the weight of our expectations.

When that happens the sensible thing to do is return to God in repentance. Sadly Jeremiah’s people were not doing that. Although they lamented that God had abandoned them they failed to take serious steps to change. And so Jeremiah records God’s lament over them.

It’s not an easy passage to read or reflect on, yet there are three really important things to notice here. Firstly, God laments. He does not delight in judgement. God loves us and hates it when we suffer.

You know that dreadful caricature of the Old Testament, where God is the heavenly psychopath who delights in plaguing people? It keeps on popping up – Stephen Fry does it very eloquently. But nothing could be further from the truth. As Ezekiel puts it: ‘Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?’

Some of you may remember our Passover meal that we did one Thursday before Easter a few years back. At the point where the Jewish people remember the plagues of Egypt they spill ten drops of wine on their plates, one for each plague. There is silence as they mourn the Egyptian dead and remember that God takes no pleasure in judgement.

It is a useful reminder for the church. I think it was Billy Graham who used to say ‘We should never speak of hell without tears in our eyes’. We should not delight in being proved right, nor rejoice in evil getting its comeuppance. The Church may be called to be prophetic, to point out to society where it is going wrong, but it must not be self-righteous. The church’s voice should not be like Basil Fawlty speaking to a foreigner – just shout louder and more slowly and they’ll be bound to get it. Instead we must speak from within the society which we challenge, as members of it who share in its responsibilities.

Secondly, grief is often necessary. It’s not helpful to sweep it under the carpet and pretend that all is well. Sometimes grief can wake us up to reality. We know that with personal grief, it’s equally true for groups and society. I heard of a vicar who came to a church where not much had changed for a long time. The faithful congregation had grown old together, not acknowledging the steady slow decline, or the end of Sunday School.

Before anything could happen, they had to learn how to grieve. That Vicar had to help them see what had happened, then she created the space for them to mourn what they had lost. Like Israel, only when that grief was articulated and shared could they begin to look to the future.

Until they did that, they were kind of numb. Half-conscious of what was going on, they were too frightened to acknowledge it. What would happen? Perhaps it would be too painful? Would they find there would be no future? It was only when someone was brave enough to point out the elephant in the room – and travel with them on their journey – that new life and hope could bring God’s grace into that situation.

That vicar had to travel a painful path with the congregation. In a small way she points us to a much deeper truth which Jeremiah only hints at. In this reading we hear of a prophet – or is it God? – who wishes his eyes were a fountain of tears so that he might weep day and night for his people.

True prophets, living churches, don’t stand over and against their society, throwing in criticisms like hand grenades. The Biblical prophet and the truly Christian church identify with people’s situations, walk alongside them, challenge, support and transform. They bear the cost of the repentance and change; they suffer alongside the victim, and accompany the oppressors as they learn to serve.

In doing so, they take their inspiration from God himself. God in Christ entered this world so that he could walk in our shoes. He did not come triumphantly to blast the opposition, but in humility. Christ was rejected, mocked, unjustly condemned. God’s Son suffered cruelty, indignity and a painful death. He took onto himself the worst that this world could throw at him – and forgave his persecutors.

By bearing the cost of forgiveness himself, God through Christ opens the door to a new creation. The power of evil cannot triumph over the love of Christ. Death cannot hold him and he is resurrected to a glorious new life. A fresh start, the Kingdom of God beginning among us and inviting us to join in. The path of grief faced and trod, and turned into Easter joy.

 

Humility before God and listening to children

Children do say the funniest things. Last week I heard of a child who said: ‘Mummy, does this Brexit thing mean that we’re not going to be able to play in the Euros any more?’ Mind you, given the England football team’s result against Iceland, that might not have been a bad thing!

Sometimes the things children say make you go ‘Aw, bless’. Other times they go straight to the heart of the matter, cutting through adult waffle and really making you think. One little boy was asking his mother about the refugees, why can’t we take them all in? His mother tried to explain about pressure on services and that kind of thing. All the boy said was: ‘But then who will help us when we’re in trouble?’

In today’s reading from 2 Kings, it’s a young girl who speaks with faith in God’s power. The powerful men all around her don’t know what to do, but she turns to God and speaks up. It’s remarkable when you think about it: verse 2 tells us that she had been stolen from her parents and forced into slavery in a foreign land. It sounds far removed from us but 3000 years later the same thing is still happening today in Syria.

You might well imagine that the young slave girl would be delighted to see her captor suffer. Naaman, the Syrian General, is the one who has masterminded the invasions of Israel, he is to blame for her plight. Instead, this anonymous girl seems to have forgiven him – or at least is ready to help – and with a straightforward humility suggests a solution.

We can learn a lot from children if we are prepared to listen. Particularly in church, it’s easy to think that our duty is to educate the next generation in the faith. Which it is, but that means so much more than pumping them full of facts. It’s helping them to develop their own relationship with God, grow in their spirituality, listen for themselves to what God might be saying to them.

And when God speaks to them, when they want to tell us their thoughts and views, it’s important that we listen. I find that this needs time: if I ask children straight out ‘what do you think of so and so’, I might not get an answer, or if I do a very quick one.

But if I sit alongside that child, if I’m with her when she’s playing, if I take the time to read her a book, and am there for her, then she starts talking about what’s on her mind and all sorts of important things come out. Children need to be able to talk to grown-ups which means that we need to make the time so they have the opportunity to do so.

It’s obvious that the two kings in the story haven’t really listened. The Syrian king gets the wrong end of the stick. His letter to Israel’s King, in v. 6 reads: ‘I have sent you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’ No mention of the Lord, no mention of the prophet!

It throws Israel’s king into a panic. ‘See how our bigger neighbour is trying to pick yet another fight with me! Am I God, to cure a man of leprosy?’ No, you’re not. No-one’s saying you should be. You’ve said only God can do this. So why not turn to God and seek his help? Why wait until the prophet sends word to you himself?

I went to a lecture last week about the 1000th anniversary of the Battle of Sherston. The speaker described how in the year 1016 the Vikings had done so much damage in England that the Anglo-Saxons were desperate. According to the lecturer: ‘they had even resorted to prayer’. Goodness me, things must have been bad. As if prayer was the last ditch thing, the only hope. But how often is that true for us? How often do I try to solve a problem on my own, think it through, work hard at it, use whatever diplomacy I have – and only turn to prayer when I’m not seeing results? We need to do all that, yes, but turn to God first. And often there will be a solution. It may not even depend upon us.

For as Elisha says, there is a prophet in Israel. But the God he serves works in an unexpected way. His favour cannot be bought or commanded, instead he reaches out in grace to the humble.

Stormin’ Naaman heads off with his cavalcade to the prophet’s house. He brings with him ten talents of silver and 6000 shekels of gold, a king’s ransom. We take health for granted, don’t we, but would pay anything for it when it is gone.

Naaman seeks to buy healing, but he also turns up, in v.9, with his horses and chariots, the heavy weapons of the ancient world. It’s as if one of Putin’s generals said ‘If you heal me I’ll give you this cheque for a million pounds’ – but he’s also parked his tanks on the lawn with their gun barrels pointing at the house.

 

Elisha is not intimated nor impressed. In fact he’s downright rude. He sends out a minion with a curt message: ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be part of society again.’ Naaman is furious. He almost fails the test of humility. Were it not for his faithful retainers, who are willing to challenge him, Naaman would have stormed off. How important it is that those in power don’t surround themselves with flattering lackeys but capable people who are prepared to ask the difficult question.

 

With their persuasion, Naaman does go to the Jordan. He dips himself, one, two, three, four, five, six – nothing yet, and seven times. As he throws the water out of his eyes and the blur clears he looks down, and wonder of wonders he is healed! The God of Israel has power to heal. Power to heal even a Syrian general.

 

So what does it all mean? To start with, this is a story about humility. As a story it works in any culture: listen to unexpected wisdom, especially from the powerless; be open to God; do not stand on your dignity; be humble in recognising your need; be ready to do the strange and apparently pointless deed.

 

It is a story about humility, but a particular sort of humility. This is the humility which enables us to receive God’s salvation as a gift. That’s how it must come. Naaman comes laden with gold and silver to buy healing, but he cannot. Naaman’s servants recognise their master wants to do something to gain healing for himself, but he cannot: ‘Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult would you not have done it?’ Later on Naaman offers presents to Elisha, who refuses. God will be no man’s debtor because salvation is a gift.

 

It can only come to us as a gift, because if we try and win it or earn it we’re not trusting in the God who gives, but instead trusting in ourselves. Putting our faith in ourselves and our own efforts means we’re not putting our faith in God. For forgiveness and eternal life we have to rely on him.

 

I knew a man who struggled with this. He had started coming to church around the time of his daughter’s wedding. He did the Foundations course and grew a lot in his understanding. But one thing bothered him: he was a capable man, he led his part of a big company. He was a problem solver, used to getting things done. It took him a long time to realise that faith isn’t like that, that God gives us salvation through the cross. That it is a gift, not earnt nor bought. He said to me: ‘I wanted to do it for myself, but I have to realise that I can’t’. Which is of course incredibly liberating once you accept it.

 

Isn’t what happens to Naaman rather like baptism? It is a picture to us of God’s love and grace. Remember that you have to be humble to enter God’s Kingdom – Jesus said like a little child. It’s only when we let go of striving and entrust ourselves to God’s mercy that we really find assurance.

 

And finally, because God’s saving, healing power is freely offered in Christ, it can be for anyone. You don’t qualify because of your race, background or education. You qualify because God gives. Here we begin to see God’s promise to Abraham coming true, that through him all generations shall be blessed. For Jesus Naaman is an example of God reaching out to the foreigner, he says: there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet but only Naaman the Syrian was healed.

 

Naaman was healed, restored, saved. He was saved not because he was rich, or powerful or successful. He wasn’t a good man nor one with strong faith. But eventually, in humility, he obeyed God’s command. And that’s what God wants from us and from our world: obedience to the way of salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

I wonder if any of you have been to a local farmer’s market? I love going see what’s on offer, although to be honest it would probably be better if I left my wallet at home. There are so many wonderful culinary delights. Once you’ve tasted they’re so great you feel you must buy!

But think of our New Testament reading from Acts 11:1-18. If St Peter had seen such food in his vision he would have been horrified. Delicious black pudding, spare ribs, bacon sandwiches, moules mariniere, or even any sort of meat cooked together with cheese – all these would be out of bounds to an observant Jew like St. Peter. Religious law would not allow him to eat them.

And there were good reasons for that. When God gave the Jewish food laws to his people it was partly for their protection. In the days before good farm hygiene, pigs lived off rubbish and so pork products were notoriously unhealthy; before clean water and refrigeration, anyone eating shellfish risked poisoning. Scientifically speaking, many of the Jewish food laws made excellent sense in the conditions of the time.

Not just that, but God gave the food laws to bind the Jewish people together. Sharing food is a communal event. Like halal or kosher today, having particular rituals around food helps a community to stick together and keep their identity. Not eating pork, say, marks you out as different and factors like this enabled the Jews to keep their religious and ethnic identity despite being scattered worldwide. In the Book of Maccabees obedience to the food laws is a test of faith, people were persecuted, burnt alive rather than taste ham. By the time of Acts, God’s people have been keeping these laws for hundreds of years. They were really important: one of the things that defined who you were. The attitude to food wasn’t restrictive either: family celebrations around Sabbath were joyful events.

Some of the best times of fellowship we have as a church are when we share meals together. I think it would be lovely to do it more. Imagine how difficult it would be though if some people wouldn’t join in! And that was the problem. God’s people, the Jews, wanted to obey his laws. To be sure of doing so, they stayed clear of any risk of compromise.

So, at the time, strict Jews would not eat with Gentiles, even items that should have been ok, because they couldn’t be sure what the Gentiles had done to the food. And if you won’t eat with people, it’s rather hard to get on with them. In fact, if you feel that someone else’s food is unclean, it’s a very short step to imagining that the person is unclean.

And this is exactly what some strict groups thought at the time of Christ. There’s a very revealing text in John 18:28 where the Jewish leaders go to see Pilate but ‘they themselves did not enter the headquarters so as to avoid ritual defilement and be able to eat the Passover.’ They wouldn’t even be in the same room because they felt they would become unclean.

Now if Peter had been like that, how on earth was he going to be able to take the good news out to the world? Jesus said in Luke 24:47 ‘forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in my name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’ That’s what Jesus intended. But unless something changed, Peter wouldn’t get very far at all. How could he possibly preach the good news if he wouldn’t associate with foreigners?

In our story, God had to send an angel to a Roman called Cornelius, telling him to send for Peter who will give Cornelius a message by which he can be saved. Cornelius does just that, and as the messengers are approaching the house where Peter is staying, the apostle is deep in prayer. Like many of us when we pray, he obviously struggled with distractions. Perhaps dinner is late, and his tummy is rumbling!

Whatever the cause, God works with his distraction. He can use ours too. If you are distracted in prayer then make a subject out of the distraction. Pray about it. Pray for the thing or person that has popped into mind. I use a pen and paper to jot down ideas that come to me so I don’t forget because sometimes God actually uses those distractions to speak to us, lay things on our hearts.

That’s what happens here. Peter sees the vision of all these unclean animals being offered for him to eat. Peter knows it’s from God, but he can’t overcome his background. Horrified, he says in v.8 ‘By no means Lord, for nothing unclean or profane has ever entered my mouth’.

But the Lord replies in v.9. ‘What God has made clean you must not call profane’ – as if these animals are no longer forbidden. It happens three times, and just as Peter’s got the point, the messengers arrive.

Obediently, Peter goes. He enters the house, speaks to Cornelius, and in v.15 ‘The Holy Spirit fell on them just as it had on us in the beginning.’ The moral is clear, in v.17 ‘If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ God made his will clear: he wanted the Gentiles to hear the good news. No longer should the disciples regard non-Jews as unclean, because Jesus is for everyone. In forgiving Gentiles and Jews alike, God has made us all clean.

We can’t overstate the importance of this. If this had never happened, Christianity would have remained a minority Jewish sect. We wouldn’t be here. The openness of Jews like Peter and Paul means that we too can come to God and be free from any ritual requirement. The self-appointed guardians of tradition were ready to criticise, but Peter explains it step by step with patience and conviction.

Of course that was a unique, one off situation. Yet there is a sense in which the church today encounters decisions with similar principles. We find ourselves assessing new developments. The culture around us changes, what is seen as normal and acceptable alters over time, contemporary morality evolves and the church has to work out how to respond. Sometimes the right answer is to stand fast.

On the other hand this reading shows us that change can be possible. While Christian core beliefs remain the same, traditions and forms of expression may change, but it needs to be God’s will. How do we know? The reading gives us a fourfold pattern. These are the questions we must ask when something new is suggested:

Does it agree with Scripture? God’s will is made clear through his word in the Bible – in v.16 Peter recalls Jesus’ teaching. He might also have remembered how Jesus declared all foods clean, how Jesus healed Gentiles, and how he spoke of a mission to the world. Although it seemed a radical departure, it naturally flowed out of Scripture.

Other signs are that God’s will is shown in the fruits of the Spirit – does a proposed course of action result in love, joy, peace and so on? And God’s will can be discerned in people’s experience of his guidance – like Peter’s vision of the animals. Those different aspects work together and they need to be saying the same thing. Finally, can the church reach a common mind? God’s will is recognised by the church agreeing together, as happens in v.18 when they all say Peter has done the right thing. Easier said than done and sometimes the church’s attention switches to how we can live together even while disagreeing.

Those are the questions the church needs to ask and it’s not a quick process. Although the answer is reached quickly at first, the controversy about the Gentiles never really goes away throughout the New Testament. Reaching a common mind takes time.

It’s bewildering for onlookers. To a modern Westerner an issue like women bishops seems obvious. Non-Christians genuinely cannot understand why some issues are a problem – sometimes they see the church as bigoted. Christians need to hear that, and perhaps also get better at explaining how we do make decisions.

It was a huge change for Peter and the other disciples. But there’s something deeper going on here. More than the church making decisions. More than mixing with people from different backgrounds. I’ll illustrate it using an analogy:

I love Scotland. Imagine if I wanted to be a Scotsman, and went off to live in the wildest part of the Highlands, would that make me Scottish? No. If I ate haggis and neeps and drank whisky every day, I’d be happy, but would I be Scottish? No. If I wore a kilt I would not be a Scotsman, nor would I have the legs for it. The only way to be a Scotsman is to be born one, maybe one day there might be a citizenship process. What’s certain is that just doing Scottish type things doesn’t make you Scottish.

Similarly, doing Jewish things wouldn’t make the Gentiles into Jews. Peter’s church had to learn that if the non-Jews wanted to become God’s children, it wasn’t a matter of bashing square pegs into round holes. You had to be much more radical. Everyone would have to be born as a child of God. It had to go deeper than the surface things, it had to be in their very nature. All would have to start afresh. In other words, everyone, Gentile or Jew, would have to be born again.

As he thought about this, Peter realised this would have to be the case. After all, he knew that God accepted him, not on the basis of the outward religious actions Peter did, but because God loved him. Jesus had forgiven Peter when he denied him, not because Peter was such a good chap (he’d let Jesus down after all), but because Jesus loved Peter so much he had died so Peter’s sins could be forgiven.

And if that applied to Peter, surely it would apply to everyone? We are not God’s children because of our outward religious traditions, but because God the Father loves us and Christ gave himself to save us. Whoever we are, we are in the same position, depending on God’s grace. And that means things like the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the kind of music we use in worship, whether we like informality or solemnity, all the little things that divide Christians don’t really matter.

And all the things that might stop someone from outside venturing through those doors, are they really so important to us? Is there any human tradition in this church which acts as a stumbling block to visitors? Are there any customs that would be Christians must take on to belong? If there are, why? Even in-jokes and banter can cause offence if you’re not part of the group.

Should we not rather do everything in our power to demonstrate the central truth in our reading: that all people can have faith in Christ? That knowing God is not a matter of food or drink or special days, but receiving forgiveness in Jesus? That no matter what our race or background, the truths of the gospel apply to us all and each must make their own response? As we seek to reach out for Christ, let us be clear about what really matters.

The moral of the story

Four missing, presumed dead, in power station collapse. Ebola devastates long term health of those who survive it. One in every two of those crossing the Mediterranean this year were Syrians escaping the conflict in their country. Just a handful of recent headlines. How could anyone remain unmoved? Many of us do what we can to help, or give to charity. But we might also wonder ‘why?’ Why do these things happen? Why is there this suffering?

People have always asked this question. Our gospel reading makes that clear – St Luke describes how Jesus responded to two contemporary events. All we know about the two tragedies in the reading is what’s written here. It seems that Pilate, the notoriously cruel Roman governor had ordered the killing of some Galileans despite the fact they were engaged in sacred duties. Siloam, in v. 4 is part of Jerusalem and it appears that a tower suddenly collapsed on a crowd.

Why did these things happen? The people who spoke to Jesus thought they had an answer. But Jesus refutes it: ‘Do you think these Galileans suffered this way because they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No I tell you.’

They thought that bad things happen because you’ve been bad. Plenty of people think that. Faced with suffering it can be tempting to find clarity in easy answers – such as ‘well, they must have done something to deserve it’. Our tabloid press likes that view because it imagines a world where bad things happen to bad or careless people, while those who enjoy good things can carry on doing so, confident in the belief that they must have earned them. The people who came to Jesus thought that the suffering were getting their just deserts. Maybe they wanted Jesus to moralise.

And you can understand why they thought so. After all, it is true to a degree, that if you do bad things you suffer the consequences. If you overeat you feel ill. If you steal from your employer you eventually get caught and dismissed. If you mess up your environment, you find it can no longer support you.

And the people in Jesus’ time saw that pattern in their history too. It had been drilled into them at school. That reading from the second book of Kings describes how Israel went into Exile because they turned away from God. Right at the beginning of the passage: ‘This occurred’ – in other words the King of Assyria invaded and took the people captive – because ‘they had sinned against the Lord their God.’

This passage is important because it’s a kind of conclusion to a lot of the story that has come before. The writer of Kings chooses this important event to teach a crucial moral lesson. The writer draws on the Biblical story thus far to make a point about God’s people. The Lord had brought them up out of the Land of Egypt. He had rescued them and given them a land to live in. God gave them his law to show them the best way to live. They were meant to be a blessing to all the other nations – a kind of example or experiment in living God’s way.

Sadly it went wrong. The books of Kings – and Judges and Samuel – describe a cycle of events. Israel disobeys God’s law, God warns them of the consequences, they ignore God, bad things happen, the people turn back to God, God rescues them. It’s ok for a bit, and then it starts all over again. But a little bit worse, a little bit more territory lost to the enemies, until eventually there’s nothing left and Israel goes into Exile.

If you’ve ever wondered why the Old Testament seems so full of threats and judgement this is why. If you’ve ever read the prophets and felt, this just seems to be warning after warning, that’s why. Every time it goes wrong, God sends a prophet. The cycle goes round several time, so a lot of prophets get sent. It’s God sending his messengers to call his people time and again. He’s giving them another chance to turn back and change. It’s a sign of mercy.

Perhaps you feel it makes for heavy reading? A bit gloomy or threatening? I can understand that. But think about it: the alternative would be that God didn’t care. If he didn’t speak to warn it would be as if a parent saw their toddler wandering onto a train track, yet didn’t rush to pick them up, didn’t even bother to yell ‘get off the line’. Who would do that? The repeated warnings of judgement in the Old Testament are a sign that God does not want to carry them out.

Tragically in this case the child kept going back until the inevitable happened. Israel and then Judah went into Exile. Even then God was merciful – seventy years later the people began to return. So people in Jesus’ time had learnt: actions have consequences. It was deeply ingrained: if you are bad, bad things will happen. Not always – we see that sometimes the worse characters seem to get off scot free.

Some of the Psalms deal with this problem: why do the wicked flourish asks Psalm 73? But then, says the Psalmist, ‘I understood their final destiny’. Evil people will not get away with it forever – they will be accountable to God the judge. Sin will not go unpunished.

But does that mean that if you suffer you must therefore have been bad? NO! It’s a big mistake to make. Just because bad deeds often cause suffering, doesn’t mean that those who suffer must have been bad.

Saying so would be tremendously insensitive and wrong. Look at the children in Syria. They suffer because of human wickedness. But it’s not their fault. The people who spoke to Jesus should have known this – they knew the book of Job, in which Job suffers even though he is a righteous man. Jesus himself taught this – when his disciples pointed out a blind man and asked whether it was the blind man who sinned or his parents so that he was born blind, Jesus said ‘Neither.’ If proof were lacking, surely the ultimate example is Jesus: he suffered greatly but never sinned.

Saying that sin causes suffering is not the same thing as saying suffering is always caused by a particular sin, or bad karma for that matter. It’s a logical error. It’s like saying all elephants are big and grey – therefore all big and grey things are elephants. They’re not – big and grey things can also be tower blocks and battleships!

Yet if we stop there, we would miss what Jesus actually says here. Jesus chooses to make a very different point. Perhaps because his questioners are self-righteous and inviting him to judge, Jesus says something very challenging. Look at verse 3: ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No! But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’ And again: ‘Those eighteen, do you think they were worse offenders? No. But unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.’

All people are in the same boat, says Jesus. We all need God forgiveness, we all need to repent, because we have all done wrong. The questioners wanted to divide humanity into the good guys and the bad guys. But Jesus tells them that unless they repent, they too will perish. Certainly some may appear better people than others, but all have failed to do what God requires.

Imagine a machine which consists of a headset and a video screen. And when you put on the headset, it replays every event in your life for all to see. Would anyone volunteer to do such a thing? I wouldn’t. I have things of which I am ashamed. I expect we all do. During Lent we reflect on ourselves and acknowledge our need of God. We repent – which means turn back to him, receive his forgiveness, and try to do the things he wants.

We turn back while we can. That’s the point of the parable of the fig tree in verses 6-9. God is like the gardener. He looks for good fruit. What happens if he finds none? Perhaps he will give us another chance. But Jesus says don’t try his patience. Don’t take his mercy for granted. Jesus says make sure you do respond to God. Repent, be sorry for your sins, trust in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for you, change your ways and do good. Produce fruits in keeping with repentance. And don’t delay! The message of this parable is: If you don’t act now, it may be too late.

For one never knows when the end may come. I’ve been in a car crash. There’s no time to put your spiritual affairs in order. It’s too quick. In the split second before impact my thoughts were: ‘Car! Brake!’ And, bizarrely, ‘If I survive this, it’s goodbye to the no-claims bonus.’ And then the airbags went off. Not very spiritual thoughts if that had been my last moments. If disaster strikes there’s no time to prepare to meet God. We need to be at peace with him all the time.

Perhaps I’m preaching to the converted here. If so remember: Jesus talks about bearing fruit. It’s not just about making a commitment to follow Christ, but letting that response transform your life, affect your actions. For that is what it means to flourish. A fruitful fig tree is a fig tree that is fulfilled. It is doing what it was designed to do. Similarly, only when we are in relationship with God will we find a deep and lasting satisfaction.

There has been a challenge in today’s reading: we all need to repent. No matter who we are, we need to say sorry and return to God. Jesus speaks the truth, isn’t afraid of the hard word: don’t delay, it may be too late, don’t try God’s patience. But there is also a promise: Come back to God, live his way, bear fruit and you will find new life, forgiveness, purpose and meaning with him. Amen.

Thankfulness

‘Vicar, could you do a Lammas service for us please?’ ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that – a what service?’ ‘Well, you see Vicar, there’s quite a lot of us farmers in the area who belong to a club. Not the Young Farmers you understand, we’re mostly in our seventies. Every year we organise a Lammas service – could you take it?’

‘Er, I’m sure I could. Did you have a particular date in mind?’ ‘Yes, Vicar, that would be Lammas Day, the 1st of August’. ‘Ah, yes, silly me, the 1st August, how could I forget? I’m sure that will be fine’.

So I went off and did my research. And when it came to it, the day went well. There was a good crowd of (not-so young) farmers and lots of old harvest hymns. At the high point of the service they brought up a loaf of bread, made from the first wheat harvested in the year, and offered it before the altar.

A quaint old custom? Or a moving reminder of our dependence on God? A symbol that all things come from God and of his own do we give him. In an age where many don’t know where their food comes from it was strangely moving to hold the Lammas loaf, the first fruits of the harvest grown in local fields and baked in a farmhouse oven.

That tradition is based on the passage we had today from Deuteronomy chapter 26 verses 1-11. It’s the second in our sermon series on big themes from the Old Testament – the themes we’re looking at aren’t exactly the same as the Lent studies, but they illuminate each other. And today’s passage tells us a lot about God’s plan for his people. It’s speaks about his love of justice and compassion. He rescued a slave people and expected them to treat others well too.

Even before they entered the land of Israel, while they were still wandering around in the desert, God prepared the Jews for the life they would eventually lead. Deuteronomy describes Moses giving the people their law and telling them how they should act towards God and one another when they enter the Promised Land. It gives us an idea of the principles of justice, gratitude and love that God seeks from us today.

I can see it in my mind’s eye: a family group approaching the altar with basket in hand. Inside are some little barley loaves from their couple of acres. The white-clad priest takes it and places it by the altar, and the family recite – from memory – the Jewish history in verses 5-10.

‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor’ – Abraham and his family were travellers, not important people until God chose them and they became ‘a great nation, mighty and populous’. But then, in v.6 ‘the Egyptians’ felt threatened and ‘treated us harshly, enslaving us, and we called to the Lord the God of our ancestors and he heard our voice.’

Do you see how the speaker uses ‘we’? Although these events happened years ago, way before some of them were born, they understood that God has rescued them too. Just like us in communion – we celebrate what happened and apply it to ourselves today. In verse 8 God rescues them with mighty signs and wonders, becoming their Saviour. God saves for a purpose, and he keeps his promises, becoming their faithful provider in verse 9 ‘He brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.’

It’s a wonderful summary of the first five books of the Bible. And now it leads into human response: ‘So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ God’s generosity leads to human gratitude. If we’re not generous, maybe we haven’t understood what Christ has done for us? Lent is a good time to reflect on his love.

Isn’t it interesting that the alien, or foreigner, is invited to the party in verse 10? The Old Testament isn’t just blood and battles – there’s a huge amount of celebration. Jewish festivals are full of joy and Christian festivals should be too. Community is formed and sustained when we gather together and eat – I find this more and more in ministry that people respond to shared food. (We all know that Hullavington is fuelled by flapjack) When we have a housegroup or a meeting it goes so much better when there’s hospitality. I think this is growing as time goes by – perhaps as our wider society becomes more fragmented people really value the chance to eat together.

But why do they bring loaves to God? Is God hungry, does God need a sandwich? Surely it’s for the sake of the people. So that they can remember. Bringing the firstfruits and reciting the history encourages and teaches them. They will remember to be humble – because they were nothing until God rescued them and built them up. Similarly for us – if we think we are something, ask why? We are tremendously blessed in this country, we have so many advantages – but it’s hardly down to us that we were born here rather than say sub-Saharan Africa.

God’s people will be grateful because, although they have worked hard, nothing they have has not come ultimately from God. Even our talents, our perseverance are gifts from Him. So hopefully they will also learn compassion and generosity. For if God acted like this to them, surely they can act in the same way towards the poor and oppressed, the foreigner among them? When we realise how much God has given us, it’s a massive incentive to generosity. How could we not be welcoming when he has opened wide his arms for us?

In this passage we catch a glimpse of God’s plan for his Old Testament people. He wanted them to be blessing to the nations, a sign of his love. By looking at how Israel lived, others would be able to see life as God intended it. They were meant to be a model society, obedient to God’s laws, not as something restrictive but as the blueprint for life. The best way to live, according to the Creator’s wisdom.

So what went wrong? By the time we get to our gospel reading, the words Jesus says suggest that things have taken a very bad turn for the worse. In v. 34 ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing.’

God’s prophets were killed because people did not like being challenged. God’s prophets were sent because the people had wandered from the right path. It seems that they forgot.

They worshipped idols because they forgot, or ceased to believe, that it was God who brought them to their land. They oppressed the poor because they forgot, or didn’t care, that their ancestors had been slaves, and God had rescued them. Perhaps they were unjust because they forgot that all good came from God, and thought their achievements were down to their own efforts.

I wonder if we can see similar things today? A forgetfulness of God in our society leading to pride, injustice and oppression? If so, the remedy is in v.35 ‘And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’’. Turning back to God through Christ will set our society’s perspective right. Building our lives on God’s will enables us to build well.

Perhaps we can also learn from the Old Testament practice of remembrance. Are there things we can do that will act as a modern Lammas Day – a regular reminder like that annual festival of first fruits? Celebrating Harvest keeps us in touch with where our food comes from. The church’s year gives a rhythm of the seasons and an annual observance of God’s great story. Holy Communion is so important – may it be a meaningful reminder of what Jesus has done for us. The Pope recently urged us to say grace – a simple reminder that we are not an island unto ourselves.

This Lent we could take up a discipline like 40 Acts –a simple action each day which encourages us to think and be generous. Here’s an example from the Christian Aid alternative: ‘Natural disasters make the headlines but the consequences endure long after the news coverage fades. Nearly 2 million people in northern Mali are still affected by the droughts of 2010 and 2012. Give 20p for every drink you have today.’

Actions like this remind us of the bigger story. They take us out of our own little world and broaden our horizons. Through these acts of remembrance we put our lives in context and discover how blessed we are. May we be aware of what God is doing in our world, and may we join in his great story. May we know his salvation and justice. Amen