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Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Three sermons from long ago: (1) Go out, risk living

and at St. Luke’s, Augathella
(5th June) 2005

            Genesis 12.1-19
            Psalm 33.1-12
            Romans 4.13-25
            Matthew 9.9-13, 18-26

Walter Brueggemann describes Genesis 12.1 as “perhaps the most important structural break in the Old Testament, and certainly in Genesis.” Another, and perhaps the greatest modern Old Testament scholar, places the break just three verses before our passage: Claus Westermann breaks his magnificent three volume commentary on Genesis at 11.27, after the resounding cry: “Sarah was barren; she had no child.” This is the beginning of the human encounter with God.

At this point, were we reading through Genesis, we would find that we come to an end of the story of God’s creation and providence through nature. However we under­stand Genesis, we have so far been reading of God’s dealing with all creation, including all humanity. Tales of the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the species of the earth, tales of the creation and the fall of humankind, and of the results of that fall, have filled the first 11 chapters of Genesis.

Now the story changes. We move into what we call salvation history rather than creation history. In all but nine of the preceding previous 53 verses the focus has simply been begetting, generation after generation of begats to tell the story of the expansion of humanity. The sole interruption is the strategic and tragic tale of the Tower of Babel, the story of humankind’s attempts to build its own path to the heavens. But now, as the story teller’s camera zooms in, the story of begetting has reached a dead end: Sarah was barren. Only the intervention of God can save the story.

So God’s intervention is needed, for humankind can go no further. Sarah is barren. The history of humankind has encountered desperation and hopelessness. Sarah is barren. This, the biblical author wants us to realize, is the place where the encounter with God begins. It is only when we encounter barrenness and hopelessness and the realization that in ourselves we can be or do nothing that the encounter with God begins. It is no accident that barrenness as rhe place of salvation is a recurring theme in the Hebrew Scriptures: Rebekah (Gen. 25.21), Rachel (29.31) and Hannah (1 Sam. 1.2), as well as Israel itself (Is. 54.1) must all encounter their own barrenness before they become the person or nation God calls them to be.

It is into this context that God speaks. Not for the first time the book of Genesis makes very clear the message that lies at the heart of Christianity’s Christmas readings: when God speaks it is done. God’s speech God’s word, is action. In the beginning “God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” God’s word is action.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. God’s word is action, and in Genesis 12 God speaks a word of hope into Sarah and Abraham’s world of hopelessness.

This is what Paul means when in our Romans passage he cites Genesis, saying that the God of Abraham “calls into existence things that are not.” At a literal level, God “calls into existence” the child that was not available to Abraham and Sarah through the processes of nature – through begetting when begetting was merely the process of history and of biology without desperate need for God. But God speaks into Abraham and Sarah’s lives, and therefore into the lives of the people Israel, and therefore into the life of all humanity, speaking a word of salvation. Where we are broken and surrender the purposes of God, there we can hear and receive God’s word of healing.

We live in a world of change. Like Abraham and Sarah we are confronted with much barrenness. We see the barrenness of western civilization, with a comparative obsession with the execution of God. We see our culture and so much of what we grew to believe in unravelling before our eyes. Some of what we see is no more than a media distortion – it is arguable whether chemical dependence or violent crime today are worse than they were, say, in the time of Ned Kelly. But we are seeing increased pressures on the rural economy, as well as changing climates, economic and meteorological. We live at a time of renewed biological threat – bird flu, for example – and of the apparent clash of civilizations, of the West and of Islam. We live in the shadow always of nuclear warfare. Are we as a world reaching a time of brokenness?

We may encounter moments of brokenness on a micro scale. Times of pain in our own lives, times when we realize we cannot make it on our own, relying on our own strength or even the strength of those we love. Are we as a world reaching a time of brokenness?

The call to Abraham is a call to move into God’s future. In the midst of brokenness and barrenness Abraham and Sarah are commanded not to stay petrified or fossilized, but to go out from their comfort zone. There is an all too human temptation to stay in the state or the place we know, even if it is a place of hopelessness. God challenges us, as he challenged Abraham. Like frogs in slowly heating water humanity has a tendency to stay put, never to move and take the challenging escape that God offers.

Abraham’s story offers an alternative. We are invited to discover it by treading out towards alternative places, places as yet unknown but places that are foot-printed by God. God gives us a future. That future is ours to grasp


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