Faithful Living in Hope (Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35)
In Isaiah, chapter 40, just before those famous lines we sang as a call to worship: “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength,” we read why their strength needed to be renewed: “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young shall fall exhausted.” In short, life’s exhausting, so people, even strong people, who would make it through need to wait upon the Lord. That word “to wait,” comes from a word for a line or cord, stretched tight. Those who wait are “stretched tight, or taut” waiting to see what happens next. It is an eager and hopeful waiting, and, indeed, in another form becomes the Hebrew word tiqvah which means “hope.” And hope is faith, but in a future tense. It’s living that risks itself on what it cannot yet see. If we’re honest, we have to admit that following Jesus often requires risking ourselves on what we don’t see…yet. You probably don’t need me to tell you that, sometimes, life doesn’t match up really well with what we’ve been taught or promised or come to expect, that Christian life ought to be. Somehow, many of us got the impression that we ought not to have as much trouble, sorrow, or pain as we do. And there should be more happiness in our lives.
It’s interesting that the first thing that God said to Abram in our Old Testament Lesson is (to use King James language) “fear not,” or, to be more accurate, “stop being afraid.” If we read the story of Abram and Sarai, just up to this point, we would see that they had a lot of which to be afraid. But, we, as Abram of old, know very well that there is really plenty for us to fear as well. Some of our fears may be different than his, but they are real nonetheless. As I’ve said to you many times, the words, “Do not be afraid,” or “stop being afraid” form the most common command in the Bible.
God actually says to Abram to stop being afraid because God is his shield, which is a fitting metaphor, since Abram has just come home from fighting a war. Then God said, “Your reward will be very great.” Abram takes up this idea of “reward,” or “gift.” He remembers that God had promised that he and his wife would, finally, have the gift of an heir. God promised that long before, but there was no heir. And Abram says so. In essence, he says, “You promised an heir long ago.” Promises, promises.” What will you give me, since (until now) you haven’t given me what you promised.” In fact, God had promised Abram an heir and land, and, although there was land, there was no one to inherit it. Abram says, “I’ve heard the promises, where’s the action?” God responds by pointing, if you like, to the starry heavens and saying, “You’ll have as many offspring as all these.” The words pretty much fail Abram, then, who has a transformative moment in which he decides to live his life as if there were an heir. And, the text says, “And God reckoned it to him as righteousness.” That rather pious translation really means, “and God considered that Abram had done the right thing by risking his life in the direction of God’s promise.
There follows a solemn and puzzling ceremony in which all this is formalized. But there still is no heir. In part of the chapter that we left out, God has some interesting words about those offspring that would be numerous as the stars. God says,
Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for 400 years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions…
So, they’ll get a gift, too, but, by that time, they’ll need one. If you think that, living according to God’s promise means no challenges, no obstacles, no fears, no difficulties, no enemies, no tragedies, then you still don’t get it. This text refers immediately to the time that Israel spent in Egypt before Moses, but, I wonder, as generations of Abram’s spiritual heirs read these words, if they didn’t say, “to which 400 years do you refer?” “There have been so many.” And can’t you and I add our own challenges, obstacles, enslavements, and the like? Don’t they seem to go on for at least 400 years? Don’t we, at least from time to time, have Abram’s sense that what God promised and what we experience are not the same thing? Perhaps that’s because we don’t understand that the gift or the reward is not a smooth trip through life riding the wave of wealth. The gift is living life in hope, risking everything to live by God’s values of love, mercy, grace, and peace. That gift is the natural outgrowth and fruit of living trustfully with the God of promise.
The Epistle Lesson from Philippians was written to a wonderful small congregation, the first Christian congregation in Europe, that was experiencing problems in its surroundings and these problems were leading to problems within the community. In our reading, the Apostle told them that they are a colony or commonwealth or outpost of heaven, a little sample of God’s life transplanted to the earth. Now that’s a little like God’s promise to Abram. It sounded good, but people were not experiencing church life as a little slice of heaven, but as a bit of some place, well, warmer. People had begun pointing the finger at one another and saying, “It’s your fault we’re in this mess.” “If you were just a little more like I am, we’d be OK.” Weren’t they discovering that the life of discipleship is more complex than it seemed it might be when they decided to follow Jesus?
Paul responded that the only way to meet problems outside is by making sure to be together inside. And that didn’t mean uniformity in looks or gender or politics or doctrine, it meant being united in Christ and unified in him. In this passage, the specific way that Paul says unity happens is by selecting good mentors. Choose those from whom you learn carefully. Choose to learn from those who know the gift of risky living in hope. They are the ones who can teach us to live our faith as an adventure together with God. It’s worth looking for and listening to mentors who can teach us that the gift of God is not a slick trip through life, but living in hope, risking everything to live by God’s values of love, mercy, grace, and peace, even when it’s hard. The gift is, once again, not something “won” as a payoff for keeping rules, but the natural outgrowth of living trustfully with God. Paul would add, of course, that our best mentor for all such living is Jesus himself.
Finally, in the Gospel Lesson, we find that a group of Pharisees warned Jesus that he was in danger from Herod. It’s interesting that the Pharisees should warn Jesus about this, since he has been so hard on them in Luke’s Gospel. Perhaps, given the choice between Herod and Jesus, they felt constrained to choose Jesus. Or perhaps, they were only trying to frighten Jesus into leaving the area. Whatever the motive, their warning had the ring of truth. Herod was known to be ruthless and had, after all, killed John the Baptist. John had, of course, pointed to Jesus as the one who would baptise people with the Holy Spirit and fire. He was the coming one. So the danger was real.
How did Jesus face the threat? It was not with either fear or anger, but with a kind of realism. He responded with two metaphors using animals. He, first, said (about Herod), “Go tell that fox…” Quite often, we think of the fox as “sly,” or “clever.” The next metaphor that Jesus uses however has to do with Jerusalem, referring to himself and Jerusalem’s people as a hen and her chicks. Have you ever seen what a fox will do in a hen house? It isn’t either clever or sly, but simply destructive.
Jesus calls Herod a destructive killer of helpless people when he calls him a fox. Then he says, “You tell him that I’m too busy with mission to worry about when it will end. The story Luke tells here is of an immensely practical Jesus, who knew what his work was, knew where such work would lead him, and knew how it would end, especially with foxes like Herod around. At the same time, Jesus knew that the work he was doing (“casting out demons, and performing cures”) was work that the Holy One of Israel had given. His work was liberation, of setting captives free. Even in the death he would die Jesus would be doing God’s work, absorbing the worst that the foxes of this world could dish out and defeating it all by an ultimate act of self-giving love.
There is also the sad reminder that I mentioned just a minute ago that Jesus would have protected the folk in Jerusalem, known for killing prophets and murdering those who try to help them, as a hen protects her chickens. But they wouldn’t have it. So, the alternative was that they would face the foxes of the world, with predictable outcome.
So, how can we use our texts today to clarify our own lives of following Jesus this Lent? From all three lessons we can learn that following Jesus does not work out to be as giddy a ride as the unabated victories in Jesus that are sometimes promised. It’s full of complexity, complication, ambiguity and anxiety. Life’s not all good news. The real world is sometimes scary. From Abram, we can learn to be forthright with God. We also learn that the reward God promises is not as a result of competitive discipleship, but is a gift that is the natural result of trusting God’s promise, even when our experience seems very different than the promise. The gift, as I’ve said before today, is living life in hope, risking everything to live by God’s values of love, mercy, grace, and peace, in spite of it all.
From Paul in Philippians we can learn that, although the promise is that life in the community of faith is a little slice of heaven, we don’t always experience it that way. The way to experience it is by coming together, not by uniformity, but by unity in Christ. One good way to do this is by seeking out good mentors who are skilled in unity in diversity, in finding common ground among differences among us that are real.
From Jesus in the Gospel we learn that we need to be busy with God’s liberating agenda of love and grace, so that we’ve got no time to worry about the foxes that want to destroy us. In the life of a small, and aging, congregation a particularly destructive fox is over-concern about survival. Like Jesus, we can learn to do the work of the Holy One…until we can’t. In the end of the day, the foxes are not as powerful as the power of love and compassion, humility and service.
So, yes, many will stumble and fall exhausted, BUT…
Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.