SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRALOF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT
(1st March) 2015
Readings: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
In recent breakings open of the word, I have suggested that we slip easily into the heresy of making the God of the Scriptures into a tame God. In the nineteenth century we made God a domestic nationalistic god, serving the interests of various colonial empires. We into a god of decency, who likes law and order and short hair and pressed clothes. The biblical witness, particular as embodied in the prophets, suggests that this is not the God of the scriptures (though there were, sadly, many moments when it was the god of Anglican practice). We often make God into an extension of our own wish list. A god who is no more than a self-help programme and not the biblically stern but redeeming God runs this risk. God will be found on the side of those who are down-trodden and oppressed, what Fanon called the “wretched of the earth.” But God is not a party political god, for sometimes the opportunism and selective amnesia of political parties will lead into positions at which God weeps. The wretched are not one cultural group.
Abraham begins the encounter with God flat on his face. Lent, if we take it reasonably seriously, is a time when we turn to spiritual prostration. It’s a reality check: is God my plaything, an extension of my own wishes and good feelings, or does God make demands of me, cut off my rough edges, and yet remind me that in places of even symbolic hardship rather than just amongst the sunshine and skittles, God is to be found? Abraham falls on his face before God. I don’t claim I do – nor even that I live up to my own demands of small privation during Lent or any other time (I usually fail abysmally) – but some sort of reality check on my complacent cosiness with God, with life, with everything does no harm. In Lent our liturgies try in some small symbolic way to echo that reality check: a little more speech about our unworthiness and propensity to do the wrong thing. For most of us it does no harm.
If at times the psalms can seem a little self-righteous and self-congratulatory, it is worth noting that the temple rites that they were destined to enhance or recall were the rites of a people who knew their vulnerability and their wrong-doing. When the psalmist exclaims “You are the theme of my praise in the full assembly” it is because the God worshipped by the Hebrew people in times of security and cataclysm, safety and near-holocaust is the only basis for meaning in his and his people’s life. God is the life-blood of existence.
But God is not a plaything, and while there is as yet no full-blown doctrine of judgement in the psalms the poets are realising that it is a dangerous matter to neglect God’s stern and critical gaze. The contrast with “those who sleep in the grave … those who go down into the dust” is designed to remind poet and the poet’s audience that they stand under the critical gaze of a righteous God who loves but evaluates God’s people. For we who believe there is judgement, and Lent reminds us that it a searing judgement illuminating all the dark and hypocritical and exploitative and unloving wardrobes of our lives. In disbelief there is neither eternity nor judgment, though there may be the brief admonition or adulation by a generation or two of descendants. Thereafter there is no more than a nitrogen cycle; for some, as Paul would remind his audiences, that is an excuse to live hard and selfishly.
Not for all. There are many who believe in afterlife only as nitrogen cycle whose lives are an exemplary witness to goodness and justice. I think once more of a Fred Hollows or some of the great humanists like an Alice Walker or a Jeremy Bentham. Nor can we ignore the sad truth that there are many conspicuous professing Christians whose attitude is an insult to Jesus. Faith and integrity have never been simple to define. That conundrum I leave to God, albeit with a sneaking suspicion that the avowed but righteous non-believers in Christ may one day experience a pleasant surprise and that the avowed and ironically self-righteous hypocritical believers may one day experience a less pleasant one.
The saga of Sarah serves as a warning to those of us who profess belief yet who refuse to open ourselves up to the life-giving possibilities of God; it is not the openness of her life and womb to the impossible promise of God that echoes down through history but her jealousy as she refuses to believe in a God who transcends human expectations, overcomes rivalries, and offers reconciliation. She briefly finds laughter and fulfilment after God’s miraculous intervention, only to retreat into hatred, and drifts towards her death without further mention after her hating of Hagar. Ultimately the generosity of a foreign people and the fidelity of Abraham combine providentially and she is redeemed with a peace-filled resting place and the eternal blessing of God.
The danger for believers and unbelievers alike is the cauterisation of conscience. We who are believers run no less of a risk of deadening the nerve ends of what is right and appropriate than those who, like Sarah, who open themselves to God’s possibilities only reluctantly or not at all. Conscience and judgement are two great gifts of God, inextricably linked in the cycles of the universe. Again and again God promises good to those who listen and obey, who struggle on through dark times and emerge into inextinguishable light. Most of us find ways to deaden our conscience from time to time, most of us lose our way, but it is to be hoped that the cauterising of conscience is not the final word in our life narrative and that time and again we can turn back to the beckoning God who takes us through the darkness: “turn back o man, forswear thy foolish way” as we used to sing before awareness of the implications of language removed some of our hymns from worship for ever. That is at least in part what the Lenten journey is about.
There is one other major ingredient in this strange journey. For as we practice the presence and assume the habit of God and allow God to infiltrate our darkest places (never easy for us, much less for God) we can be, as the Orthodox call it, “divinised” or as the Protestants call it “sanctified,” can be made into, as we sang just now, “channels of God’s peace,” or can be as we shall sing in two weeks’ time,
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.